Palin and the Wolves: Inside Alaska's Aerial Hunt

Deep in Alaska's interior, Fortymile Country is what you visualize when you think of the nation's 49th state: rugged, cold and heartbreakingly lonely, a feeling heightened by the occasional howl of a wolf. But there was another sound in the area last weekend: the whir of a helicopter, carrying a steady-handed state employee looking to target those wolves in the sights of his 12-gauge shotgun. This time the hunters came back empty-handed, but last month they killed 84 wolves in the area. (Story continued below...)

Alaska's controversial program, designed to cull the state's wolf population, captured America's attention last year when detractors gleefully hung it around vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's neck as an example of, well, something. Unsportsmanlike conduct? Unladylike behavior? A taste for blood? No matter—the criticism gave Palin supporters another reason to shout "attagirl" to "give 'em hell" Sarah. What do urban and suburban folks in the lower 48 states know about life in the wilderness, anyway? Michael Goldfarb, Sen. John McCain's former campaign spokesperson, went so far as to call the program "political gold" for the plucky VP candidate.

As the punditocracy chatters about a possible 2012 Palin presidential bid, the annual aerial hunt is likely to keep its wings. But behind the political whirligig is a complex conservation debate that has split Alaskans, hunters, scientists and the state and federal governments—since long before Palin came onto the scene.

At the top of the food chain, humans and wolves have a historical adversarial relationship. In Alaska, both compete for caribou and moose, which the state says gray wolves are depleting. The state says it is home to roughly 800,000 caribou, 200,000 moose and between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves—more than the entire continental U.S., which has a total of about 6,000 wolves. For the past five years, Alaska has had a fairly intensive predator-control program in six areas that make up about 9 percent of the state, mostly involving private hunters and small planes. The program has killed fewer than 300 wolves a year, and though the target this year was 460, state officials expect to again get only about 300. Private trappers and hunters take another 1,100 or so wolves annually.

When Alaska first joined the union, the federal government paid bounties in a failed effort to essentially wipe the animals out, and shooting from aircraft by private individuals goes back for decades. Today the state says it uses more scientific methods to manage all its wildlife. Under a state law enacted in 1994, the Alaska Board of Game (appointed by the governor) is required to "identify … important [wild] food sources for Alaskans, and to insure that these populations remain large enough to allow for adequate and sustained harvest." To protect wild game, the board can restrict hunting seasons, improve habitat and control predators (including wolves and bears).

A hunter who loves her moose-meat chili, Palin recently issued a statement in response to critics: "Alaskans depend on wildlife for food and cultural practices which can't be sustained when predators are allowed to decimate moose and caribou populations." Patrick Valkenburg, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says, "Sarah Palin is a realhero to the hunters." Alaska sells about 98,000 hunting licenses a year to its roughly 700,000 residents, but even some of those hunters believe the aerial wolf program is at best unsportsmanlike. (Another 14,000 out-of-state licenses are issued annually.) Some say it's a system designed to create overhunting. "The role of the hunter is grounded in conservation and stewardship and respect for the land and animals, not in extreme plans to 'grow more caribou' at any and all costs," says Mark Richards, from the Alaska chapter of a group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Some critics say the state is being far more aggressive under Palin, who took office in 2006. Vic Van Ballenberghe, a wildlife biologist and a former Board of Game member appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, says Palin has "turned loose an army" against predators. The board also recently approved the killing of more than 900 bears in order to boost moose and caribou, and the gassing of orphaned wolf pups in their densafter the adults have been killed, claiming that it's more humane than leaving them to fend for themselves.

While sparing orphaned animals the pain and suffering of starvation might be the humane thing to do, it also hands the animal-rights crowd a gift on a silver platter. The activist group Defenders of Wildlife highlighted the gassing of "defenseless wolf pups and their families" on a Web site soliciting donations. The organization recently released a gruesome video of a wolf being chased and killed by a low-flying propeller plane in the Alaska hinterland, in which actress Ashley Judd says, "It is time to stop Sarah Palin."

Wade Willis, a wildlife biologist who works for the Defenders, claims that the state really wants "unlimited commercial consumption" of game. "They want to artificially turn Alaska into a game farm, into one big hunting ground," he says. "It's a gamble based on a far-right political agenda, not on science."

"Absolute baloney," says Valkenburg, the Fish and Game deputy commissioner, who was appointed by the governor last year."It seems that people who don't like Palin are using this as a way to attack her, and raise money. And the people who don't like the predator-control program are using Palin as a way to attack it." Valkenburg says that groups like Defenders of Wildlife "shop around for people who are philosophically opposed to the program and with Ph.D.s next to their names. These are people who have never even been to Alaska. It's absolutely absurd."Pointing out that the predator-control program is required by a law enacted before the current governor was elected, Valkenburg says it protects a way of life important to many Alaskans, including Native American populations. "Further," he says, "why not produce food locally instead of importing food? We have a naturally functioning ecosystem that you can manage to produce food locally. Why not do that? Why not think globally and act locally?"

Valkenburg adds that if state biologists do it right, if they use all the means at their disposal to kill lots of wolves now, they'll be able to act less aggressively later. But other biologists fear the result will be a never-ending predator-control program that will ultimately alter the delicate balance that holds predator and prey in check. Wildlife biologists around the country have sent letters and petitions to the Board of Game, disputing the state's claims about the reasons for declining moose populations, pointing to overhunting and other natural factors like weather conditions. And some think the state has overstated the numbers of wolves in any given area.

Through hunting and trapping, the state says its goal is to kill about 300of the 400 wolves it believes were in the Fortymile area at the beginning of the fall season, leaving one to two wolves per 1,000 square kilometers. But Greg Dudgeon, superintendent of the federal Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, which borders Fortymile, says no one has a good count of the wolf population, or an ideal wolf-to-prey number. Federal biologists have been collaring, monitoring and studying wolf packs in the preserve, which has been run by the National Park Service since 1993, and have conducted extensive surveys on wolf populations in the area—leading them to believe that there are closer to 300 wolves in Fortymile.

But Dudgeon's main concern is that wolves from his preserve are moving into Fortymile, where they could be shot by state employees. As the culling program continues, wolves from the national preserve may migrate to Fortymile because there's less competition and more food. "Nature abhors a vacuum," Dudgeon says, "and wolves are great at filling that vacuum."

This season's program will wrap up in a few days. The hunters will stop their aerial assault, and the wolves will get a break. But come next year the state is likely to be in the air again, looking for wolves. And guess who will be back on the airwaves, bashing Palin?