Courts - Alaska E-mails reveal state, fed divided over 'predator control' plan Judge sided with federal agency, stopped state from killing wolves

By Mary Pemberton

Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- E-mails obtained by The Associated Press reveal a fissure that turned into a divide between federal and state wildlife managers over a plan to go into a national refuge in Alaska and kill wolves.

The state and federal governments have a long history of working cooperatively behind closed doors to manage the state's vast wildlife resources, but the dispute over a caribou herd ended in a public showdown in court, with the state losing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was required by federal law to do an environmental assessment of the state's plan to kill wolves on caribou calving grounds inside the refuge on Unimak Island, and needed more time to conduct the review.

E-mails show cooperation had been ongoing for months before the state abruptly announced it was going to the island in the Aleutians to undertake predator control measures.

The state's position was the herd was in dire straits because hungry wolves were eating too many calves. It announced May 20 it planned to take immediate action and begin predator control on Unimak in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

A letter and e-mail sent that day from Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd to Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the quick action was necessary to stop the rapid decline in the herd and preserve a crucial subsistence resource.

Dan Ashe, who stands in for Gould at the Fish and Wildlife Service when he is not available, replied several days later, saying the federal agency would consider it trespassing if state employees engaged in predator control without a permit.

Ashe said the agency valued its partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and hoped that relationship "continues without actions that could elevate differences for legal resolution."

Ashe didn't get his wish.

A look at e-mails from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act and from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game under state open records laws revealed what occurred between the two agencies behind the scenes.

When the state issued its May 20 press release, Larry Bell, an assistant regional director for the federal Fish and Wildlife agency, sent an e-mail to Lloyd expressing his surprise that a letter involving the issue had been sent to the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and given to the media.

"We are committed to continue our work together despite this interruption," Bell wrote.

Four days later, federal Fish and Wildlife responded with a letter of its own and a press release.

The letter acknowledged a sense of urgency regarding the Unimak Island caribou herd but said the federal agency was required to be transparent in its actions, and completing the environmental review would provide that.

By that time, the federal agency had started receiving e-mails accusing it of blocking attempts to save the caribou herd and pleading with federal officials to aid the people on Unimak.

Geoffrey Haskett, Fish and Wildlife's regional director for Alaska, urged Bell to use more explicit language to describe to the public what the federal government was doing and why.

"The state is going to continue setting us up as the bad guy on this when we actually want to get to the same place as them ultimately," Haskett said in an e-mail.

About two weeks later, U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland denied the state's request to immediately begin predator control inside the refuge. He determined the federal agency had the prerogative to do what it was doing but questioned why it hadn't worked more cooperatively with the state.

It appeared trouble had actually started months before. A Fish and Wildlife e-mail early in the year eluded to a developing problem with how the two agencies conceived their separate missions.

The federal agency, which manages wildlife for natural diversity, took the long view when considering the caribou herd's possible demise. The herd had died out before and come back.

The state agency, however, was focused on the herd's more immediate decline and how it was affecting subsistence hunting for locals, and how it could die out if nothing was done.

Relations quickly soured after the state issued its May 20 press release saying it intended to move forward immediately to help the herd.

The federal agency then began looking at its options to act "before the state actually does something."

Published: Mon, Aug 23, 2010