Don’t call shooting from the sky hunting


The small airplane circles in the sky, its pilot and passenger peering out the windows as the plane banks to the left and right. They see a dark-colored dot moving against the snow below, and quickly, they circle tighter and downward until, yes, they realize it's a wolf.

The circling then changes to a slow glide with just enough motor to keep the plane aloft. The low-flying plane startles the wolf, and the frenzied animal takes off running through the deep snow ahead of the roaring engine. The airplane quickly passes the wolf, circles, and comes around again, chasing, teasing.

Three or four more chasing passes and the wolf is exhausted and panting from running through the deep snow. Two things could happen next. As the plane slowly comes around again, the passenger leans out the window, rifle in arms and sights in the wolf. Then the passenger pulls the trigger, kills the wolf and the plane flies away. This is called "aerial gunning."

Or with large airplane skis, the plane lands on the snow nearby, and the passenger gets out with rifle in arms and leans up against the tail rudder, steadying the rifle's sights. Then he pulls the trigger and kills the wolf. This is called "land-and-shoot hunting."

Both are legal in the state of Alaska, and further, the Alaskan Legislature and governor continue to contract with pilots and hired guns to do the job during this winter. Approval has been given to kill 1,000 wolves via aerial means. The rationale, if you can call it that, is that wolves are diminishing moose herds, although no wildlife science backs up that claim.

Recently, over 100 wildlife scientists — including myself — wrote to Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski to protest this type of predator control. But getting a hearing is difficult. The Alaskan Legislature and the governor previously ignored a professional, scientific report recommending against the practice, and then they ignored two ballot initiatives passed by the majority of Alaskans outlawing aerial gunning and land-and-shoot hunting, and right now they are ignoring America's wildlife scientists.

Instead, they're just killing wolves for no good reason, ratta-tat-tat, like in a video game, flying around, Rambo-style, rifle loaded, finger on the red button for "kill."

Which I know a little about. I remember the small airplane circling in the sky, the pilot and passenger peering out the windows. I remember the banking turns, the roar of the engine, my eyes squinting down, the dark-colored dot moving against the snow. We didn't have wolves where I grew up, but we did have coyotes, and my dad had an airplane.

From the sky, a coyote den shows up because the animal scrapes out a fresh patch of dirt every morning that shows up against the white snow. We'd circle around and buzz a time or two to see if a coyote would come out.

Of course, aerial gunning, or using an airplane to hunt wildlife in any manner, is illegal in most places, and so I can't say we did that. But I can say a few other things: Once we spotted the coyote, we’d fly back to the airport, load the snowmobile in the truck and drive back out to the farm. We didn't ask the farmer for permission because nobody cared. It was open season on coyotes just as it is for wolves in Alaska, and just as it is now for coyotes in most of the American West: Killing them was all anybody did.

And then we rode the snowmobile out to the den, scared the coyote out of the hole and pulled the trigger. It's what everybody did for no good reason — just killed them.

And it's wrong.

Nowadays, as a hunter, I support fair-chase hunts; I even support fair-chase hunting of wolves.

But as for the aerial gunning and land-and-shoot hunting of wolves, and any other goofy way to kill wildlife that doesn't connect you with the spirit of nature and the life of the animal, or for any other killing that doesn't make you realize how precious all life is and that when we devalue any piece of it, we more than anything devalue ourselves, I say this: Stop it. I did.

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is an ecologist and writer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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