Legal action threatened over state predator control in refuge

UNIMAK: Refuge hunt requires special-use permit, USFWS says.

May 24, 2010 

A federal agency threatened legal action if Alaska moves ahead with plans to kill wolves inside a national wildlife refuge.

In a letter Monday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service cautioned the Alaska Department of Fish and Game about proceeding with plans to kill wolves on refuge land on Unimak Island without a federal special-use permit.

Doing so would be considered as a trespass on the refuge and such action would be referred to the U.S. attorney, according to a Fish & Wildlife Service news release.

The letter was in response to one that state wildlife officials sent last week to Rowan Gould, the Fish & Wildlife Service's acting director.

In that letter, Corey Rossi, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said, "Immediate action is required to protect the herd, specifically this year's calves.

"Waiting to take action places this year's calves in too great a jeopardy," wrote Rossi, a strong proponent of aerial predator control where wolves and bears are killed to increase moose and caribou numbers.

The federal agency is required by law to follow a certain process -- a process the state is well aware of but apparently doesn't want to wait for, said Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods.

State Fish and Game Department officials declined Monday to answer questions or comment.

Wade Willis, a former state wildlife biologist and a vocal player on the conservation side of Alaska wildlife politics, supported Fish & Wildlife's action.

"Fish and Wildlife cannot tolerate the state's attempts to obliterate the last 30 wolves remaining on Unimak Island," he said.

"Federal management authority always takes preference over state management mandates. The USFWS is mandated to protect natural diversity and abundance. Alaska prefers to manage for a game farm, where wolves and bears are decimated to allow unchecked commercial guiding and trophy hunting."

Last week, the state Fish and Game Department announced that beginning about June 1 it will shoot some wolves on Unimak to protect caribou calving grounds under its aerial predator-control program.

The department plans to use two biologists and four pilots to kill wolves over three weeks on Unimak, which is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

It would be the first time in recent history that aerial predator control was used inside a national refuge in Alaska.

Caribou are a subsistence food for people living on the island, but their numbers have declined sharply. In 2002, there were more than 1,200 caribou. Last year, fewer than 300 were counted. The state has an unofficial estimate of up to 30 wolves.

In its letter, the Fish & Wildlife Service said it recognizes the urgency but is required to follow federal law when initiating new management programs on its refuges.

It also points out that the federal agency has been working with the state to better understand the biological factors in the herd's decline since concerns were raised in December. To that end, it has issued permits to allow additional radio collaring and biological sampling of wolves and caribou, the letter says.

The federal agency hopes the jurisdictional issue can be resolved without going to court. If it can't, maybe the court could resolve it "once and for all," Woods said.

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