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Changing Alaska Won't Stand for Cruel Treatment of Wolves

New program to sterilize key wolves in a remote area contrasts with harsh wolf control of the past.

It used to be that when Alaskans talked of "wolf control," they meant targeted killing - at times by skimming over the landscape in an airplane and simply shooting the animals with rifles.

Today, many Alaskans won't stand for such practices, which they see as cruel and unfair - and they have made their feelings known. After three years of meetings and detailed negotiations, public opinion has led state officials to adopt a new, nonfatal method of wolf management: birth control.

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During this and the next two winters, biologists will go to the remote Fortymile River region, capture members of the wolf packs there, and either sterilize them or transplant them to other parts of the state. The plan is an important waymark in a gradual cultural shift that has taken place on America's frontier during the past few decades. No more a place solely for bearded roughnecks and hearty pioneers, Alaska has become more urbanized, and its citizens of the 1990s have different expectations.

"It's an issue of values, and they've probably changed over the last few decades as we became more urban," said Wayne Regelin, director of wildlife management for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, when the plan was unveiled in November. "It was pretty clear to us that the lethal wolf control of shooting wolves out of airplanes was probably off the scale of what was acceptable to most people."

Indeed, despite Alaska's image, killing wild animals can be a sensitive subject here.

Although public support for hunting remains high - polls indicate that 75 to 85 percent of residents favor allowing people to hunt wildlife for food - participation is far lower. In fact, hunting participation is lower in Alaska than it is in states such as Wyoming, Montana, and Georgia, says Tony Monzingo, head of the hunter-education program at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Not counting some bush residents who gather food from the land for traditional "subsistence" purposes, only 14.5 percent of Alaskans more than 16 years old hold hunting licenses. While sales of sport-fishing licenses have risen steadily over the past decade, the number of resident hunting and trapping licenses has been constant or has declined, despite dramatic population growth.

"Alaska is actually not at the top of the food chain as far as hunting goes," Mr. Monzingo says.

Alaskans' attitudes about wildlife management are most polarized when it comes to wolves. In 1996, voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that banned aerial hunting of wolves and wolverines. The law mandates that hunters may not kill animals on the same day that they land their aircraft, a provision that supporters say will discourage people from chasing the animals. Now activists are seeking to place an initiative on the statewide ballot that would ban the snaring of wolves, a practice that is too clumsy and cruel to the wolves, initiative advocates say.

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Early surveys indicate the initiative would pass easily, says political pollster Dave Dittman. "If it were on the ballot today, it would pass, I am sure."

He and others point to Alaska's urbanization as a major reason for the gradual change in attitude about hunting and wildlife management.

"It used to be presumed that you came to Alaska and you lived off the land because you had to," Mr. Dittman says. No longer. Now the overwhelming majority of Alaskans live in cities. Fully 40 percent live in Anchorage, a modern metropolis with espresso stands, sushi bars, and traffic snarls.

Many urban Alaskans tend to be forgiving even when wildlife poses problems in the city. Anchorage's population of Canada geese, for example, has increased tenfold in the past two decades, a byproduct of new lawns, ballparks, golf courses, and other suburban development that created tasty grass and an irresistible environment for the birds. The geese pose serious threats to aircraft - in 1995, a military plane crashed, killing all 24 aboard, after dozens of geese were sucked into its engines - and the birds' vast volumes of droppings are polluting local lakes and ponds.

But when a task force came up with a plan to halve Anchorage's population of Canada geese - largely through expanded hunting and egg harvesting - many residents protested. The plan, issued last fall, is under new review.

"If large numbers of Canada geese had crowded into any Alaska town in the 1950s," wrote a bemused Mike Doogan, an Anchorage Daily News columnist and third-generation Alaskan, "the only public debate would have been over who had the best recipe for stuffing."

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