Gov. Sarah Palin is pushing a bill to make it tougher for conservation groups to sue the state for gunning down wolves from planes.
Palin officials say there's confusion in interpreting the state's predator control laws, aimed at boosting moose and caribou populations for hunters.
House Bill 256 aims to straighten it out with simpler language, according to Doug Larsen, director of the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation.
"When our attorneys go into court they typically win," Larsen said. "But it takes a lot of time and effort and money to do that."
The Defenders of Wildlife, which has sued over the state's wolf-killing program, charged that Palin's bill eliminates the "few remaining standards" governing the program and would allow predator-control expansion across the state. The group says the bill takes science and public input out of the process.
"It gives carte blanche for the Board of Game to move ahead based on a hunch," said Tom Banks, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "Based on a belief, really, that killing wolves in a particular area would be helpful."
Defenders of Wildlife said the bill removes scientific standards by saying the state game board can authorize predator control by simply finding it would be "conducive" to growing more big game. Banks said it also eliminates the need for the state to have a "comprehensive wildlife management plan" to start predator control in a given area. Such plans give the public a chance to weigh in on wildlife values other than harvesting meat, he said.
State wildlife conservation director Larsen said he doesn't see the bill having such a dramatic effect. Larsen said the bill would not change how predator control is actually practiced -- just make the law more clear.
The state Fish and Game Department would have to scientifically justify that predators are a problem and that the control program would likely succeed, he said.
He said there would also still be lots of opportunity for the public to comment.
"The programs are always adopted through a public process, the Board of Game process," he said. "People are always able to come to the table and provide testimony."
The state's aerial predator control program is in its fifth year. Pilot/gunner teams with state permits have since killed more than 700 wolves in five designated rural areas of the state. It is mostly aimed at wolves but has also included bears, including the land-and-shoot hunting of black bears across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.
The program is under attack in Alaska and in Washington, D.C. Defenders of Wildlife has put up ads, including posters of wolves, in the D.C. subway system urging support for federal legislation by California Democratic Rep. George Miller to ban aerial killing.
There's also an initiative headed to the statewide ballot in Alaska this fall. It would ask voters to limit aerial wolf control to hunts done by state biologists in emergency situations.
Alaska voters have passed similar initiatives twice in recent years. But the Legislature subsequently passed measures allowing private pilots to do the hunting if they are participating in a state-sponsored program.
Defenders of Wildlife and other groups have also fought in the court system. They've failed so far to stop the aerial hunting but have won some victories along the way, including forcing the state to stop paying pilots and gunners $150 per animal.
Banks said Defenders of Wildlife expects a decision soon on a lawsuit charging the state didn't follow its own rules in setting up recent predator control areas. He said the group isn't against hunting but wants fair chase. Banks also said the predator control programs are expensive and not as effective as the state is claiming.
Meanwhile, Palin's House Bill 256 has its first hearing today in the House Resources Committee. The Legislature has historically been favorable toward such measures.
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras said high energy costs have made it even more important to try to make game meat available for the people in the Interior and rural Alaska.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
How to testify outside Juneau
Palin's predator control bill, House Bill 256, will have a hearing today at 1 p.m. in the House Resources Committee.
People from outside Juneau interested in testifying can do so at their local Legislative Information Office. A list of the LIO locations can be found online at w3.legis.state.ak.us/misc/lios.php. The Anchorage office is at 716 W. Fourth Ave., Suite 200.