Dear EarthTalk: What is aerial wolf gunning and why does Alaska governor Sarah Palin endorse the practice?

Dear EarthTalk: What is aerial wolf gunning and why does Alaska governor Sarah Palin endorse the practice?

— Vivian Anderson, Seattle, Wash.

Aerial wolf gunning involves stalking and shooting wolves from low-flying planes and helicopters. The practice yields better results than traditional ground-based hunting since it allows hunters to cover lots of ground quickly and track prey from an unobstructed "bird's eye" vantage point. For these very reasons, some hunters—as well as many environmentalists and animal rights advocates—consider aerial hunting unsportsmanlike and even inhumane since it violates the "fair chase" ethic.

Aerial hunting is mostly forbidden on U.S. public lands per the Federal Airborne Hunting Act, passed by Congress in 1972. But individual states can allow it for the sake of protecting "land, water, wildlife, livestock, domesticated animals, human life or crops." Alaska governor Frank Murkowski exploited this language in 2003 and signed a state bill allowing Alaskans to apply for permits to kill wolves—which some Alaskans' fear take a large toll on the moose and caribou that hunters like to shoot—from aircraft.

But when Sarah Palin, herself an avid hunter, took over the governorship in 2006, she instituted a $150 bounty for any hunter who killed a wolf from an aircraft in select areas where moose and caribou populations were not as large as hunters would have liked. A state judge quickly put a halt on the bounty, ruling that the Palin administration lacked the authority to offer such payouts. But the judge was powerless to stop aerial hunting itself as long as it was done in a permitted fashion in the name of "predator control," per the loophole in the federal ban.

Palin also approved a $400,000 state-funded campaign that helped undermine a recent ballot initiative to ban aerial hunting, and also introduced legislation to ease restrictions on the practice. In the four years Palin has been governor, upwards of 800 wolves have been killed by aerial hunting in Alaska. Palin has joined influential groups such as the Alaska Outdoor Council in maintaining that wolf populations need culling, as the great canines are literally stealing food from the tables of Alaska's many subsistence hunters who rely on moose and caribou kills to feed their families through the long cold winters.

But Rodger Schlickeisen of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife says that it is Alaska's small but politically influential commercial hunting interests—not subsistence hunters—who want to keep aerial wolf-gunning alive in the 49th state. "Their clear intention is to eliminate as many of nature's major predators as possible to artificially increase moose and caribou numbers where it'll then be easier for urban and wealthy out-of-state hunters to shoot their trophy animals," he says, adding that scientific data do not show the need for stepping up predator control efforts.

Schlickeisen insists that most regular Alaskans are opposed to aerial hunting, even for the purpose of predator control. "Twice in the past 12 years, Alaska voters have approved state ballot initiatives to limit the use of aircraft to kill wildlife—and twice the state legislature, encouraged and abetted by the [appointed] board of game, has overridden the citizen-passed laws to restore use of aircraft," he says.

CONTACTS: Alaska Outdoor Council, www.alaskaoutdoorcouncil.org; Defenders of Wildlife, www.defenders.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.