ANCHORAGE, Alaska – ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The state of Alaska will have to wait until at least Monday for permission to proceed with its plans to kill wolves inside a national wildlife refuge in order to protect a caribou herd that supports a Native village.
U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland set a hearing for oral arguments, rejecting the state's request for immediate approval for predator control.
The state is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for blocking its plan to kill wolves on Unimak Island in southwest Alaska. The state says the killing of wolves on the calving grounds is necessary to save the declining caribou herd, now at about 400 animals — down from more than 1,200 in 2002.
Caribou are an important subsistence food for about 62 people living on Unimak, the easternmost island in the Aleutian chain.
In a lawsuit filed May 28, the state is seeking permission from a federal court to conduct the program inside the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and asked that it be allowed to kill at least seven of the estimated 30 wolves on the island. The lawsuit accuses the federal agency of erecting unnecessary barriers.
"Nevertheless, Alaska has done all it can do to surmount the barriers and proceed to take the now-emergency action that has become obviously necessary," the lawsuit says.
The state had wanted to begin killing wolves on or about June 1. It delayed its plans when the federal agency threatened to consider state biologists carrying out the mission as trespassers. On Friday, it requested a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction.
Holland did not grant immediate relief during a hearing Thursday. 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.
Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said the agency welcomes the opportunity to participate in the hearing.
"We look forward to getting a decision," he said.
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.
Two weeks ago, the state announced it would conduct aerial shooting of wolves 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.
As preparation for Monday's hearing, Holland asked lawyers to 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.