Alaska's request to kill wolves in wildlife refuge rejected by federal judge; issue to be revisited
ANCHORAGE — A federal judge on Thursday rejected the state of Alaska's request to immediately kill seven wolves in a national wildlife refuge on Unimak Island.
The state wants to remove wolves from caribou calving grounds and boost numbers for the herd in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
However, Judge H. Russel Holland refused Alaska's request for a temporary restraining order against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has threatened legal action if state employees enter the refuge in helicopters to shoot wolves.
Instead, the judge set a hearing Monday and said the court would consider a preliminary injunction. He asked lawyers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department to provide responses to the state's lawsuit by Friday afternoon.
"I think it will be best for everyone if we can get this matter out of the way," Holland said.
The state has informed the judge that Monday is the longest it can wait to prevent wolves from eating calves this year.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has said that if it doesn't act for even one calving season, it could take the herd several years to recover. Without action, Corey Rossi, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, has said the herd likely will die out.
"There is an urgency," state attorney Kevin Saxby said after Thursday's hearing in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said it wants more time to consider the state's plan for aerial predator control within the southwest Alaska refuge.
Caribou are an important subsistence food for about 60 people living on Unimak, the easternmost island in the Aleutian chain, but caribou numbers have been declining.
In 2002, there were more than 1,200 of the animals. State biologists now estimate there are about 400 caribou on the island. The state has an unofficial estimate of up to 30 wolves.
Two weeks ago, the state announced it would conduct aerial shooting of wolves as early as June 1, using two biologists and four pilots.
The federal agency, however, said the plan would require a special use permit and perhaps a more time-consuming review to assess the environmental impact of the wolf-killing mission.
Failure to follow the procedures could be considered trespassing, the agency said. The state says it won't put its employees in the position of possibly being arrested and therefore is seeking a judicial solution.
Saxby told Holland the state intended to present three witnesses at Monday's hearing, but the judge said he did not anticipate taking any testimony.
He requested that lawyers for the federal agency focus their response on several key issues, including why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that killing seven wolves on Unimak constitutes a "major federal action" that requires an environmental impact statement.
-- Mary Pemberton, Associated Press
Photo: A wolf walks near Anchorage. Credit: Al Grillo / Associated Press