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Groups Spar Over Wolf Management and State Constitution

National Park Service

Fairbanks, AK - When Wildlife Conservation groups petitioned the Alaska Board of game last week to reconsider their decision not to establish an emergency management zone to protect wolves on the eastern border of Denali National Park and Preserve, they cited the Alaska constitution in the document.  But as  whether the Board has acted unconstitutionally is subject to interpretation.

A constitutional convention met in Fairbanks for 75 days between 1955 and 1956.  The 55 delegates present set out to write Alaska’s state constitution.  But University of Alaska Political Science Professor Gerry MacBeath says it’s not likely they were thinking about predator control back then. “This has developed along with the American national and the state animal rights movement," he says. "It’s focused on wolf control policies and objects to them and is attempting to find any angle that it can use to change those policies.”

Since September, wildlife advocacy groups and individuals have filed three petitions with the state Board of Game.  They’re asking the board to prohibit hunting and trapping for wolves along the eastern border of Denali National Park and Preserve.  In one of those documents, Conservation Biologist Rick Steiner argues that the Board is not upholding a Constitutional requirement to protect the public interest in managing wildlife resources. “If they sit back, look carefully at how their decision erred last month on this petition," says Steiner, "they’ll see that it’s very reasonable to reimpose the buffer as proposed and that it makes economic sense and it’s consistent with Alaska’s Constitution, because a lot of these people visiting Denali are Alaskans.”

Two known trappers use the area near Denali, where Steiner and other petitioners would like to see the buffer zone reestablished.  Steiner says by managing for them, rather than the hundreds of thousands of park visitors who come to see wolves and other wildlife, the Board is violating a requirement under the state constitution to make resources available 'for maximum use consistent with the public interest' and 'wherever occurring… for common use.' “These Denali wolves are extraordinarily economically valuable," he says, "I mean there’s 400 thousand people that visit Denali every year and most of them want to see wolves.”

Natural Resources, animal, mineral and otherwise are addressed in Article Eight of Alaska’s constitution.  Under section three, wildlife, fish and waters are reserved for common use.  Gerry Macbeth says those are the overriding principles with which the document was written.  “The concepts that they decided to use is “available to all Alaskans," says MacBeath. "Open Access, essentially, to the benefits of the fish and game population of the state and no discrimination.”

MacBeath says he gets about three phone calls a year inquiring about the constitutionality of the state’s wolf management program.  He says previous state and superior court decisions regarding Fish and Game policies have already made that clear. “The Department has a mandate control wolves in the state of Alaska," he explains.  "That is what they’ve done.  So I would imagine that a court following the logic of previous decisions in this case would say that’s what the department is doing, it’s implementing the constitution and statutes.”

Article Eight of the Constitution is just over a thousand words long and much of the language is vague.  MacBeath says that’s because the entire document is meant to adapt to changes over time. In fact, the only thing he doesn’t see changing anytime soon is the controversy surrounding wolf management in the state.
“I would say that it is the single most controversial policy regarding fish and game management in Alaska –the wolf control policy."