Wolves, bears find friends in outraged Denverites
By Valerie Traina DATELINE: 5/18/2009 ||| Two minutes after hitting the pavement on the pedestrian mall in downtown Denver on Sunday, the 8-year-old pulled his guardian under the blue tent to shade himself. He couldn’t have known it, but that tent represented a group that is looking out for his best interests.
The 8-year-old is Timber, a wolf-hybrid living at The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide. As he lapped up water and crunched ice cubes brought over by a woman in a red dress, he proved his worth as an ambassador for an event at 16 th and Arapahoe Streets. Parents and their young children stopped to look, and finally, pet the docile animal. Many posed for pictures with the star.
Defenders of Wildlife teamed up with the Wolf Center to inform the public about the aerial gunning of wolves, and to ask people to help halt the practice.
“We’ve been tracking the number of wolves killed [by aerial gunning] in Alaska since 2003, and found 1,000 wolves have been killed,” said Caitlin Balch-Burnett, Colorado outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Balch-Burnett said that small aircraft are generally used, accommodating two people, a pilot and a hunter. They fly in winter, so that the wolves stand out against the snow, and have little cover in which to hide. Once a wolf is spotted, the animal is chased until exhaustion or until the hunter can get close enough to get off a few rounds. Often, the plane lands and the wolf is shot at close range. However, due to the fact that the hunter is airborne, the bullets frequently don’t make a clean kill, and the animal suffers needlessly before it dies.
The issue of aerial gunning spurred volunteers of all ages to approach passers-by about signing postcards to their Congressional representatives and senators, urging them to co-sponsor the PAW Act. The acronym stands for Protect America’s Wildlife, and is meant to close a loophole in the 1971 Airborne Hunting Act, which made it a crime to harass or shoot wildlife from the air, according to Balch-Burnett. She said the loophole is a passage that states that if there is a biological emergency, animals may be shot from aircraft.
Balch-Burnett said that predators, such as wolves and bears, eat the weaker members of the herds of caribou and moose, thus making the herds healthier. She said Defenders is concerned that wealthy hunters in Alaska are influencing local politicians, because they bring a great deal of money into their communities. Balch-Burnett said that these are trophy-hunters, who take out the healthiest members of the herd, and thus show no regard for its long-term viability. By reducing the number of competing predators, Alaskans artificially inflate the numbers of caribou and moose available to hunters, she said.
According to the Web site for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, they are practicing intensive predator management. Any private citizen can hunt wolves and bears from the air, and “fair chase standards do not apply,” according to their educational booklet. Fish and Game claims that there’s a need for the program because wolves and bears are eating too many of the prey species, causing an inadequate supply for human beings, especially subsistence hunters. Balch-Burnett’s answer to that claim was that there are more than 1 million caribou and 160,000 moose in Alaska.
In 2007, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was urged to review her state’s predator control programs in a letter signed by over 170 scientists. The signatories questioned the standards used by the Alaska Fish and Game Department in formulating the aerial hunting program. Three similar letters were sent by the American Society of Mammalogists. The scientists stated that they had grave concerns that the program would damage both predator and prey populations and their ecosystems.
Daniel Mireles of Denver stopped to sign a postcard. “I used to live in Alaska, in Anchorage,” he said. “I don’t agree with aerial hunting because they’re doing it for profit.”
Highlands Ranch resident Terah Bruce, 18, was even stronger in her condemnation of the practice. “I don’t have anything to say [about aerial gunning] except it’s wrong, because they’re innocent animals,” she said. “As humans it’s our responsibility to protect animals, not kill them mercilessly.”
Valerie Traina is a lifelong animal defender and honorary editor of Cyrano’s Journal.