Alaska group halts ‘howl-ins’ to protest killing of wolves

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The howling has stopped.

An animal rights group will no longer hold “howl-ins” as part of a grass-roots campaign aimed at stopping the killing of wolves in Alaska, but will continue its call for a tourism boycott of the state.

Over the past two years, Friends of Animals helped stage hundreds of protests in cities across the country to protest Alaska’s predator control program intended to increase moose and caribou numbers. The gatherings included protesters, some dressed in wolf outfits, some howling when decrying the hunts.

However, the howl-ins failed to convince Alaska’s governor – the person with the authority to stop the program – that killing wolves is wrong, said Priscilla Feral, president of Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals, describing Gov. Frank Murkowski as “unmovable.”

“If the boycott was designed to get Murkowski to sacrifice an attitude, it didn’t happen,” Feral said.

The animal rights group had better success about a decade ago to stop a similar wolf control program under former Gov. Wally Hickel. That time it took 53 howl-ins in 51 cities before Hickel ordered a moratorium.

Murkowski remains a strong supporter of the program, said his spokesman, Mike Chambers.

“This has always been a responsible predator control program that is intended to manage our game populations and it is working,” he said. “We are happy that Friends of Animals realizes that feeding people is more important than protecting animals that are not threatened in the first place.”

State biologists estimate that there are between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves in Alaska, enough they say to drive down the number of moose and caribou that locals rely on for food. The program got its start in the McGrath area in Interior Alaska in 2003, an area where locals had long complained bears and wolves were eating too many moose calves.

More than 400 wolves have been killed under the program so far, and the state has set a goal of another 400 for this winter. The state recently issued more than 100 new permits. As of Friday, nine wolves had been killed.

State biologists have said there are early signs the program is working, but it is too soon to tell for sure.

The howl-ins had little impact on Alaska tourism, according to Dave Worrell, spokesman for the Alaska Travel Industry Association, a trade organization of about 1,000 Alaska businesses. The state actually saw the number of summer tourists go up, increasing from 1.3 million in 2002 to 1.4 million in 2004. An estimated 1.5 million tourists visited last summer, he said.

Only a handful of visitors canceled their plans because of the wolf program, Worrell said. When concerns were raised, the association directed people to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game Web site set up for comments.

The association responded in a letter that said, “Our association does not possess the expertise to evaluate game management and predator control. That expertise rests with the Alaska Board of Game and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.”

“We always get a few calls or e-mails from folks on a variety of issues,” Worrell said. “The numbers are not particularly great.”

Friends of Animals organizers were optimistic in late 2003 when the campaign was launched to apply pressure on Murkowski to abandon the program, which allows wolves to be shot both from land and air. Between December 2003 and April of this year, the group held 233 howl-ins in cities nationwide. So far, it has spent $324,000 on the campaign, most of it in advertising and legal costs.

Friends of Animals will continue its call for a tourism boycott with ads on television, and in newspapers and magazines, Feral said. Ads have already appeared in a number of high-profile publications, including the New York Times newspaper and Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, and Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart magazines.

Feral said Friends of Animal will refocus its efforts on challenging the program in court – a strategy that so far has failed to end the program. This week the group asked Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason to expedite a ruling on its latest challenge that questions the state’s scientific evidence to support the program.

Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said while more research is always nice, the agency did provide the Board of Game adequate information to approve lethal wolf control.

“I think the work done on those areas is pretty good compared to the level of information available for a lot of wildlife management decisions,” he said. “We are not casually going out and deciding to do this.”

Robus noted that the state constitution and state laws concerning wildlife require the Board of Game to develop management strategies when certain crucial moose and caribou herds dip below certain levels.

“One of the important uses under Alaska history is taking animals for feeding families, for the meat, for the food,” he said.

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