By Sean Doogan
*KTUU, Anchorage, Alaska (Published: Thursday, February 10, 2005)*
Anchorage, Alaska—An avalanche of mail is about to hit the governor’s office—response to the state’s predator-control program that is gearing up to kill 610 wolves this season to increase the moose population in certain rural areas.
The issue has brought environmental conservation groups together with animal rights activists. One group has even called for a tourism boycott of Alaska.
But are these efforts having any effect?
“We believe that we will be able to stop the aerial wolf control program in this state,” says Karen Deatherage of Defenders of Wildlife.
“We’re devoted to opposing the wolf control at every level and in every form and at every opportunity,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals.
What’s the difference between the two organizations? Defenders of Wildlife is a national group with an Alaska branch. They concentrate on wildlife issues, but they don’t take a position on hunting or the fur trade, and they don’t support an Alaska tourism boycott as a way to stop the wolf program.
“We believe that tourism is a good industry for Alaska, and secondly we would like to encourage the people in tourism to get more active in wildlife issues,” says Deatherage.
Friends of Animals is a Darien, Conn., animal rights group that supports no-kill animal shelters, promotes a vegetarian lifestyle and launched the Alaska tourism boycott.
One of their previous boycotts was successful in 1992, when then-Gov. Wally Hickel stopped a similar aerial program after just 15 days.
Even without the aid of the Internet, the governor’s office was flooded with protest letters. Those letters and protests today, however, are not pushing Gov. Murkowski to do the same.
“I think the different governor made the difference, in that Walter Hickel was probably more sensitive to public pressure and public sentiment,” Feral says.
The governor’s office says it has received hundreds of thousands of mostly negative comments on the program. It’s a program that allows specially licensed pilot-hunter teams to use airplanes to thin wolf packs. But this newest boycott has not deterred a resurgent Alaska tour industry.
“We actually saw a substantial increase in all aspects of our visitor arrivals this last summer,” says Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
Industry figures show that the state saw 1.45 million visitors last year, up 140,000 over the year before. And this year?
“Our businesses are already telling us that their advanced bookings for the same time, compared to last year, are up over last year,” Peck says.
So why is this boycott seemingly not as effective as the 1992 version?
Conservation biologist scientist Rick Steiner says the boycott is having an effect. “There would have been more tourists coming here had the boycott not been in place, likely.”
The travel industry says it is having some effect, as well — just not where it’s intended. Peck says the businesses that are hurt the most are the smaller, environmentally sensitive outfits such as backcountry backpackers and eco-friendly guides. Those are the businesses that cater to the type of people most likely to support the boycott.
That’s an irony not lost on the travel industry. “The people they’re hurting are the people that they’re most in tune with,” Peck says.
Friends of Animals, undeterred, shrugs off accusations that they are in the Alaska issue for the money. “It’s not about money,” Feral says. “It’s about a culture that needs to change, and people that need to get involved in taking back the power.”
Although Defenders of Wildlife say they have seen an increase in donations since they got involved in the wolf-control debate, tax records for Friends of Animals show their donations are actually down since they started the boycott.
“Only Alaskans can change the politicians there,” Feral says. “That burden is left to them. And what a pressure group like Friends of Animals is left doing is delivering retributions.”
Those retributions include continuing a boycott of Alaska’s No. 2 industry—a boycott meant to showcase their view that Alaska is no friend to animals.
Steiner says that, with the lackluster effect the tourism boycott is having on the predator-control program, other boycotts are being considered. He says he’s been told that opponents of the aerial wolf hunt are thinking of boycotting other Alaska products, such as seafood, to get their point across.