U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland said that while sympathetic to the state's argument, he had to abide by law when ruling against the state's request to immediately conduct predator control in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Unimak Island.
"Somebody's governmental pride will be bruised here and there is no avoiding that," Holland said, before ruling in favor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It is the federal agency's prerogative to decide what they have decided."
The state argued that without emergency intervention, the Unimak Island caribou herd - the only island caribou herd in the United States - will continue to decline and die out if nothing is done.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued it is bound by certain environmental laws that must be considered, and that takes time. In the meantime, it said it has been working with the state on the problem of the declining herd.
The federal agency late Monday announced it would allow the state to relocate 20 bull caribou from another herd off the island to Unimak in hopes it would lead to better calf production in future years.
Holland rejected the state's argument that the federal agency had unlawfully kept it from going forward with its plan to kill seven wolves. That issue is still being worked out, Holland said, and therefore is not subject to court review.
"At this time, there has been no federal agency action subject to review," he said.
Caribou are an important subsistence food for people living on the island in the Aleutian chain in southwest Alaska, but herd numbers have dwindled from more than 1,200 in 2002 to about 400 now. There has been no subsistence or commercial hunting of caribou on Unimak for the past two years.
Holland found that the court didn't need to step in now and try and prevent immediate harm to rural residents because "the harm has already been done."
He acknowledged that the herd is in a "bad situation" but felt in time that could be remedied.
The state blames the problem on hungry wolves preying on caribou calves. It accuses the federal agency of unlawfully blocking its attempts to remove wolves from the herd's calving grounds.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had wanted to begin killing wolves on or about June 1 but backed off when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to consider state biologists carrying out the operation as trespassers and vowed to go to the U.S. attorney if they went into the refuge to kill wolves.
The state filed a lawsuit on May 28 asking that the federal court clear the way for the killing of up to seven wolves, the number it has determined need to be removed to protect the herd.
The state has said that if the operation doesn't start immediately, the chances to help this year's calves will be lost.
"The question is, 'Can we do something now to help this herd from going over the cliff?'" state lawyer Kevin Saxby asked the judge at a morning hearing. "We are asking for your authority to keep it from taking the last step and plunging over the precipice."
But Department of Justice lawyer Dean Dunsmore said the agency does not consider the situation an emergency. He pointed out that the state informed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service less than six months ago that it believed the herd was in dire straits.
Since then, Dunsmore said the government has been working with the state on a permit issue requiring consideration of the National Environmental Policy Act, also called NEPA.
"The government has been clearly working with the state to act on its permit but must follow NEPA - and is trying to do so," Dunsmore said.
Saxby did not have an immediate comment after the ruling.
Bill McAllister, spokesman for the Department of Law, said the killing of seven wolves is "off the table" as a practical matter because help this calving season would come too late for the herd. The state does not have an announcement as to what its next step could be, he said.
Holland made clear in his concluding remarks that he couldn't understand why the federal agency hadn't worked more cooperatively with the state, McAllister said.
"He made clear they certainly could have worked with us on this," he said.
Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd said it was unfortunate the judge felt his hands were legally tied. He described the ruling as "a disappointment."
By Associated Press Writer Mary Pemberton