March 2005
Writers on the Range

Aerial Gunner Man
Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner The small airplane circles in the sky, its pilot and passenger peering out the windows as the plane banks to the left and right. They see a dark-colored dot moving against the snow below, and quickly they circle tighter and downward until, yes, they realize it's a wolf.

The circling then changes to a slow glide with just enough motor to keep the plane aloft. The low-flying plane startles the wolf, and the frenzied animal takes off running through the deep snow ahead of the roaring engine. The airplane quickly passes the wolf, circles, and comes around again, chasing, teasing.

Three or four more chasing passes and the wolf is exhausted and panting from running through the deep snow. One of two things happens next: one, as the plane slowly comes around again, the passenger leans out the window, shotgun in arms and sites in the wolf. Then the passenger pulls the trigger, kills the wolf, and the plane flies away-this is called "aerial gunning."

Or two, with large airplane skis, the plane lands on the snow nearby and the passenger gets out with rifle in arms and leans up against the tail rudder, steadying the rifle's sites. He pulls the trigger and kills the wolf. This is called "land-and-shoot hunting."

Both are legal in the State of Alaska, and further, the Alaskan legislature and Governor have, and continue to, contract with pilots and gunner-men to do the job right now this winter. Approval has been given to kill 1,400 wolves via aerial means.

The Governor, Alaskan legislature, and Alaska Board of Game claim that wolves are diminishing moose herds, yet no wildlife science will back up their claim. A National Academy of Sciences panel recently studied the issue, refuted this claim, and recommended against this 'predator control.' And more recently, over 100 American wildlife scientists (including myself) sent a letter to Governor Murkowski protesting this aerial program. Further, a majority of Alaskan citizens in the past ten years have twice voted to ban aerial gunning and land-and-shoot 'hunting.'

Instead, they're just killing wolves in Alaska for no good reason, ratta-tat-tat, like in a video game, flying around, Rambo-style, guns loaded, finger on the trigger for 'kill.' It's as if killing wolves--or just killing wildlife in general--provides some sort of gross, macho-like thrill.

Which I know a little about.

I remember the small airplane circling in the sky, the pilot and passenger peering out the windows. I remember the banking turns, the roar of the engine, my eyes squinting down, the dark-colored dot moving against the snow. We didn't have wolves where I grew up thirty years ago, but we did have coyotes, and my dad had an airplane.

From the sky, a coyote den shows up because the animal scrapes out a fresh patch of dirt every morning that shows up against the white snow. Then we'd circle around and buzz a time or two to see if a coyote would come out.

Of course, aerial gunning-or using an airplane to hunt wildlife in any manner-is illegal most places, and so I can't say we did that. But I can say a few other things: Once we spotted the coyote, we'd fly back to the airport, load the snowmobile in the truck, and drive back out to the farm. We didn't ask the farmer for permission because nobody cared. It was 'open season' on coyotes-just as it is for wolves in Alaska-and killing them was all anybody did.

And then we rode the snowmobile out to the den, scared the coyote out of the hole, and pulled the trigger. Dead. It's what everybody did, for no good reason, just kill them.

And it's wrong.

Nowadays, as a hunter and ecologist, I support fair-chase hunts for properly managed wildlife species. I even support fair-chase hunting of wolves.

But, for the aerial gunning and land-and-shoot 'hunting' of wolves, and for any other goofy way to kill wildlife that doesn't connect you with the spirit of nature and the life of the animal--for any other killing that doesn't make you realize how precious all life is and that when we devalue any piece of it, we more than anything devalue ourselves--I say this: Stop it. I did.


Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.