Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and John McCain’s vice presidential pick, is an enthusiastic hunter who has proposed legislation and cash incentives to encourage aerial wolf gunning, the controversial practice of shooting wolves from an aircraft. Do people in Alaska really shoot wolves from planes?
Yes, but only with the government’s permission. Aerial shooting yields better results than traditional hunting, since it allows the hunter to cover a lot of ground quickly and track target animals from a clear vantage point. Historically, hunters also used planes to drive animals—polar bears in Alaska and elk in Montana, among others—toward gunmen waiting on the ground. But many hunters found the practice unsportsmanlike, since it violates the “fair chase” ethic, and animal rights activists call it inhumane, since airborne gunmen rarely get a clean (i.e., relatively painless) kill. In response to concerns like these, Congress passed the Federal Airborne Hunting Act of 1972, which made it illegal for hunters to shoot animals from a plane or helicopter.
The federal legislation (PDF) does have a loophole for predator control, permitting state employees or licensed individuals to shoot from an aircraft for the sake of protecting “land, water, wildlife, livestock, domesticated animals, human life, or crops.” (This doesn’t just apply to wolves; coyotes and foxes are sometimes gunned down from aircraft, especially in Western states.) Since 2003, Alaska has issued aerial wolf-hunting permits in select areas where moose and caribou populations are particularly endangered. The idea is that by killing the predators, the airborne gunmen can ramp up the number of moose and caribou that human hunters can take home for supper.
An aerial wolf-gunning team typically consists of two people—one to fly the plane, and one to shoot the animals. Former crop sprayers tend to make good pilots because they are used to flying close to the ground. Airborne hunters tend to fly single-engine Super Cub planes at very low speeds and at altitudes of less than 100 feet—sometimes swooping down to 10 to 15 feet above the ground. But flying so slow and low can be dangerous, and there have been a number of reported deaths in recent years as a result. Helicopters have the benefit of being able to hover very close to the ground, but they’re prohibitively expensive for private pilots. (A small helicopter might cost as much as four times more than a Super Cub.) This past spring, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game lent its helicopters and employees to the predator-control effort.
There are two methods for making a kill during an aerial hunting expedition: Either you shoot the wolf while airborne or you track the animal from above, then land and shoot it from the ground. Legal limits on “land and shoot” hunting have been far less stringent: For many years after shooting from the air was outlawed, anyone with a hunting or trapping license could practice “land and shoot,” provided he or she walked a certain distance from his plane before opening fire. Current rules in Alaska require a delay between landing an aircraft and killing an animal: In most cases, hunters must wait until 3 the following morning before they can get started.
Back in the 1950s, Alaska paid government employees and bounty hunters to take out thousands of wolves, but today’s aerial wolf killers are unpaid. (They can make some money by selling the wolf pelts.) Palin tried last year to have the state pay $150 for every wolf killed, but the state superior court shot that down as an illegal use of bounty payments, which were outlawed in that state in 1984.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks Caroline Kennedy from Defenders of Wildlife.