Hearing held in federal court on Alaska plan to kill wolves inside national refuge

By Mary Pemberton, AP
Monday, June 7, 2010

Judge hears both sides in Alaska wolf-killing case

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A federal judge took up the issue Monday of whether the state of Alaska can kill wolves inside a national wildlife refuge to prevent them from eating caribou calves from a herd that supports a Native village.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland was expected to make a decision Monday afternoon following a hearing in federal court in Anchorage where he heard from both sides.

The state argues that without emergency intervention, the Unimak Island caribou herd — the only island caribou herd in the United States — will continue to decline and die out if nothing is done.

The state would like to begin the operation inside the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge immediately.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argues it is bound by certain environmental laws that must be considered, and that takes time. In the meantime, it said it has been working with the state on the problem of the declining herd.

Caribou are an important subsistence food for people living on the island in the Aleutian chain in southwest Alaska, but herd numbers have dwindled from more than 1,200 in 2002 to about 400 now.

The state blames the problem on hungry wolves preying on caribou calves. It accuses the federal agency of unlawfully blocking its attempts to remove wolves from the herd’s calving grounds.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had wanted to begin killing wolves on or about June 1 but backed off when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to consider state biologists carrying out the operation as trespassers and vowed to go to the U.S. attorney if they went into the refuge to kill wolves.

The state filed a lawsuit on May 28 asking that the federal court clear the way for the killing of up to seven wolves, the minimum number it has determined need to be removed to protect the herd.

The state has said that if the operation doesn’t start immediately, the chances to help this year’s calves will be lost.

“The question is, ‘Can we do something now to help this herd from going over the cliff?’” state lawyer Kevin Saxby asked the judge at a morning hearing. “We are asking for your authority to keep it from taking the last step and plunging over the precipice.”

But Department of Justice lawyer Dean Dunsmore said the agency does not consider the situation an emergency. He pointed out that the state informed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service less than six months ago that it believed the herd was in dire straits.

Since then, Dunsmore said the government has been working with the state on a permit issue requiring consideration of the National Environmental Policy Act, also called NEPA.

“The government has been clearly working with the state to act on its permit but must follow NEPA — and is trying to do so,” Dunsmore said.

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