The Defenders of Wildlife animal protection group was in a bind.
Last fall Alaska officials began tracking wolves from airplanes and helicopters and shooting them. The goal was to reduce the wolf population in order to save more caribou and moose, but to the wildlife group, the operation was "biologically unsound and ethically irresponsible."
The problem was that friends of the wolves could find few allies in Washington. Most of the hunting was being done on state property, not federal land, so the Interior Department couldn't get involved. Wolves are not on the endangered species list, so Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had no authority to step in.
But last week, the group finally found an agency that would call off the hunt, at least temporarily: the Federal Communications Commission.
Almost by accident, a biologist for the group and a staff member in Sacramento discovered that Alaska was using FCC-licensed radio equipment to track the wolves. Under an experimental program, the state was fitting captured wolves with radio transmitter collars, then releasing them and tracking them back to their packs by following the radio signals.
"The use of this equipment to locate the wolves for the purpose of killing them no longer constitutes a research project," wrote H. Frank Wright, chief of the FCC's frequency liaison branch. Alaska originally was licensed to study the migratory habits of birds; the license had to be renewed every two years.
It's not the first time that animal welfare groups have turned to an agency other than Interior for help on issues that concern them.
They have gotten the Environmental Protection Agency involved by citing its jurisdiction over the use of poisons in the wilds. The Agriculture Department is working on a program to help train guard dogs to protect sheep, as an alternative to allowing farmers to hunt wolves that kill their flocks.
Groups concerned about the world's whale populations are pressuring the Commerce Department to invoke economic sanctions against Japan, which supports a whaling industry despite an international moratorium.
"We have been working on a lot of fronts, trying to find different angles," said Dan Smith, a spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife. "The FCC one was really a fascinating one."
The FCC ruling does not mean that the Alaska hunt will be halted -- only that the federally licensed radio transmitter cannot be used. "The hunt will go on," Smith said. "It just means it will be much less efficient."