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Judge affirms damages decision against biologist, animal group

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A Superior Court judge has upheld a Tok jury's decision to award damages to a trapper who claimed biologist Gordon Haber broke state law by freeing an injured wolf on his trapline in 1997.

Judge Richard Savell ruled the Tok jury did not err in its 2000 decision that awarded Eugene Johnson damages, but that the jury exceeded the amount it could award.

The jury awarded almost $190,000 -- nearly $40,000 from Haber and $150,000 from Friends of Animals of Darien, Conn., which had been a primary funding agency for Haber's work. The jury concluded that Haber was an employee of the animal protection organization, a conclusion Haber disputes. He claims to be an independent wildlife biologist.

Judge Savell said the Tok District Court did not have jurisdiction to award that much money.

Counting attorney fees and interest, Savell's decision will amount to Friends of Animals paying about $100,000, said Zane Wilson, the attorney representing Johnson's claim.

Johnson died in June and the money will be awarded to his estate, Wilson said.

''It was rather tragic that Eugene did not live past this litigation,'' he said. ''Certainly Eugene felt that he had done the right thing and he felt really proud that he had done something about this situation.''

Wilson said Savell's ruling also holds Haber individually liable for about $79,000 in damages, but that Wilson essentially must choose between taking that amount or the higher figure Friends of Animals was ordered to pay.

''I can't collect from both of them,'' he said.

Johnson, an Alaska Native who lived a subsistence lifestyle, first filed a lawsuit in March 1998, a year after Haber released a 2-year-old black wolf caught in one of Johnson's traps near the Yukon-Charley National Preserve. Haber contended the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner had given him permission to release the wolf, and that the wolf was captured illegally.

''My basic position hasn't changed from day one: I released an illegally caught wolf,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Friday.

Haber contended that Johnson's snaring site was littered with at least four dead caribou caught in snares. If wildlife troopers had prosecuted Johnson, he said in 2000, then the trapper would not have been able to file a civil suit.

Haber said Friday he had not read Savell's decision. The wolf he released by cutting the cable snare with a Leatherman tool still had wire from the trap lodged in its foot.

The released wolf, which was wearing a radio collar, was located by state and federal biologists three weeks later about 20 miles from the snaring site. The biologists tried to save the injured wolf by amputating its injured foot with a Swiss army knife. The wolf died a day later.

''My biggest regret was and still is that I didn't carry a bigger pair of wire cutters to cut the remnant pieces of wire so the wolf didn't die,'' he said.

Haber's actions came under scrutiny after he distributed a video tape showing the wolf's release. He said the video was meant to draw attention to abusive trapping techniques.

Dave Kellyhouse, a Tok resident and the state Department of Fish and Game's former director of wildlife conservation, said the Tok community views Savell's decision as a victory.

''We're delighted in Tok. It's about time someone stood up to these people,'' said Kellyhouse, who testified during Johnson's trial.

Haber said he does not know whether he or Friends of Animals will appeal the decision.

The Friends of Animals national headquarters was closed Saturday.

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