By RACHEL D'ORO
Associated Press Writer
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- A judge on Friday halted Alaska's $150 payments for each wolf killed under its predator control program.
Conservation groups lauded the decision by state Superior Court Judge William Morse granting their request for a temporary stop to what they called an illegal bounty. Plaintiffs are suing the state to terminate the predator control program altogether, but said Friday's ruling was significant.
"If our goal is to offer as much resistance as possible, we have done that with abundance," said Priscilla Feral, president of Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals. "As for torpedoing the entire Draconian wolf control program, that's the litigation that continues."
Her group and other plaintiffs, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, asked the court Tuesday to stop the payments. They cited a decision by the Alaska Legislature more than two decades ago that revoked any authority the state Department of Fish and Game had to pay bounties to hunters.
The state announced the so-called incentive earlier this month for its program in which wolves are shot by hunters from airplanes. Hunter and pilot teams with state permits were offered $150 for each wolf killed when the left front leg was turned in.
Fish and Game officials have said the legs can help biologists determine wolf age and assist the program in the future. Officials deny the payments are bounties, saying such payoffs in the past were made to almost anyone who could offer proof of a kill. The new incentive program was called a controlled effort to reach the state's management objectives and boost moose and caribou numbers in five specific areas.
Friday's ruling does not affect the predator control effort under which more than 660 wolves have been killed in four years. The program runs in the winter months and this year ends April 30.
"The judge issued a very narrow restraining order aimed at the payment incentive," said Matt Robus, director of the agency's Division of Wildlife Conservation. "Obviously we will heed his order and stop doing that."
The incentives had aimed to help pilots pay for gas and boost income in households participating in the program. Previously, the only compensation for pilot and gunner teams permitted under the program was the open market price for the wolf pelt, anywhere from $200 to $300 each.
The program is far behind its goal of killing up to 680 wolves this year. About 150 wolves have been killed to date this winter, and that number includes wolves killed by trappers and other hunters.
Critics of the program said the numbers were low because the state has overestimated the number of wolves, based on outdated information. The state estimates the number of wolves at between about 7,000 and 11,000 animals. But Defenders of Wildlife has said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts the number at between 6,000 and 7,000 animals.
Robus has said the program lagged in some areas because of too little fresh snow to track wolves.
Robus said the agency would weigh possible options to the incentive program, including some discussed in court, such as offering a fuel subsidy or enlisting the Alaska Board of Game to enact regulations for cash incentives.
Meanwhile, staffers were hustling Friday to notify 82 pilots participating in the program, who work with 111 gunners, that the payments are off - a predicament not lost on critics.
"I think it was ill-advised to propose the bounty program in the first place," said Tom Banks, an Alaska associate for Defenders of Wildlife. "We think it would be a great idea for the state to put the money from the bounty program toward conducting a proper survey of the wolf populations before any more wolves are shot by aerial gunners."