Killing wolves is Alaska's touchy subject

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Killing wolves is a touchy subject in Alaska.

Just look at the shockwaves caused by an Associated Press story that said lethal wolf control could be implemented as early as this winter, and lethal bear control could be in place by next summer, as part of a plan to boost the moose population in the McGrath area in Alaska's Interior.

The story ran on the AP wire on Friday, Aug. 17, and a version of it appeared in Saturday's Anchorage Daily News, the state's largest newspaper. The story was broadcast statewide on radio and television stations. The state's second largest newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, ran its own story incorporating material in the AP story.

On Sunday the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reacted by releasing a news release emphasizing that no final decision on predator control had been reached at the agency level.

That same day, Deputy Commissioner Robert Bosworth requested that the AP write another story counteracting statements made by Pat Valkenburg, the Fish and Game biologist in Fairbanks who is coordinating the research on increasing the number of moose in McGrath.

In interviews with AP, Valkenburg had said, ''Our goal is to eliminate wolf predation in that area,'' referring to an 850-square mile area inside the 5,300-square-mile area known as Game Unit 19D. ''We are going to shoot all the wolves that hunt in that area.'' He said department staff would shoot the wolves from helicopters.

Valkenburg said the goal was to shoot between 40 and 50 wolves, and perhaps as many as 50 black bears.

Similar information had already been included in a press release posted on the state agency's Web site earlier that week.

The release was posted under the headline ''Predation Control is Key to Plan.'' It said, ''Unless harvests significantly rise, Department staff will conduct predator control on wolves as early as this winter. Decisions about bear management will be made this fall and winter.''

The AP story said the governor would have to approve any final plan on predator control.

Valkenburg's comments were made in reference to a study to increase the moose population near several villages where residents have complained for years that wolves and bears are killing too many moose, leaving them with too few to eat.

After the Anchorage paper on Monday ran a follow-up story under the headline ''Predator Control Comments were Premature,'' the AP received a call from David Ramseur, the governor's deputy chief of staff, asking if the AP planned to write a similar follow-up story.

When Ramseur was asked what promoted his request, he said, ''The press release had not been approved by the department and the comments of the Fairbanks biologist that a plan that lethal predator control was ready to proceed this fall were premature.''

David Hulen, city editor of the Daily News, said the paper decided to go ahead with a follow-up story because the Fish and Game news release contained fresh information.

''We felt like there was enough new information there it was a fuller piece of the story,'' he said.

Bosworth called the Fairbanks paper and made a similar request, according to Tim Mowry who wrote the original News-Miner story. The paper declined to do the follow-up, in part because he said his story made clear the governor would need to approve any plan to kill wolves or bears.

The Alaska AP bureau decided against a follow-up story based the news release until it could reach Valkenburg for another interview. Valkenburg had gone hunting.

The commissioner's office of Fish and Game told the Fairbanks office to remove the news release it posted from the Web, said Fish and Game department spokeswoman Cathie Harms.

Bosworth said the news release had not received approval at the department level. But Harms said news releases usually don't need to get approval at that level and her Fairbanks bosses OK'd it.

She said she will repost the news release with the headline and statement about predator control removed.

Valkenburg said Wednesday his comments were prompted by a teleconference in which the discussion was about lethal wolf control beginning in the McGrath area.

Valkenburg said David James, Interior regional supervisor of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, asked Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue if they were talking about the probability of lethal wolf control beginning Nov. 1.

''The answer was 'Yes,''' Valkenburg said. ''That is why I went as far as I did with my comments.'' He said everyone agreed it was time to start preparing the public.

Valkenburg said he now will refer questions about predator control to the commissioner's office.

''I think from here on out I will not be talking about the importance of predator control,'' he said.

The governor became concerned after reading Valkenburg's comments that the process spelled out in the study plan was being circumvented, said Knowles spokesman Bob King. The plan had not even been reviewed by the adaptive management planning group, an ad-hoc group formed by Knowles, he said.

''The governor does not intend to short-circuit this process,'' he said. ''To see that some people were talking about dates, specific numbers ... that was wrong.''



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