By Darryl Fears
The Trump administration has ordered a review of federal rules that prevent hunters from killing bears and wolves using techniques many people consider extreme: baiting the animals with greasy doughnuts, ambushing mothers with pups in dens and shooting them from boats while the bears are swimming.
An Interior Department official sent memos to the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week requesting that they reassess rules on “various prohibitions that directly contradict State of Alaska authorizations and wildlife management decisions.” Alaska severely manages predators to increase moose and caribou populations for the benefit of hunters. Bears, wolves and coyotes prey on those animals for food.
“I anticipate that you will focus this reconsideration on certain aspects of the rule that I believe are particularly worthy of additional review,” acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks Aurelia Skipwith wrote in the memos. Skipwith told the acting directors of both agencies to work with Alaska residents to make a new final rule for the national parks there and for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The action is separate from a March vote along party lines in Congress to rescind the Obama administration’s order late last year, which outlawed the prioritizing of prey over predators at 16 federal wildlife refuges in Alaska. Under the 1994 Congressional Review Act, Congress has 60 days to overturn a presidential order. But rules prohibiting wildlife management that specifically target predators had been adopted by the National Park Service in Alaska and the Kenai refuge years ago.
For decades, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service negotiated annually on hunting and fishing regulations on the tens of millions of acres that comprise national wildlife refuges and national parks in the state. But in 2013, the Alaska Board of Game, which is made up of political appointees, rejected those proposed rules and told the state agency to write its own.
In 2015, national park officials responded by adopting the current rules. Those forbid killing bear cubs with their mothers and wolf pups and mothers in the season when they den. They also prohibit using dogs to hunt big game and killing predators for the sole purpose of increasing the number of animals for hunting.
The department’s review is about “being a good neighbor and restoring trust,” spokeswoman Heather Swift said Friday. She cautioned that “insinuating any predetermined results is premature. The department is committed to working with the people of Alaska on how to best manage their wildlife and habitat.”
Interior is pressing ahead right now despite a recent study by scientists for the state game department showing that predator control has little effect on the growth or decline of herds on which they prey. “We detected no convincing support for decreased wolf predation during control,” the study said. “We also detected no support for increased caribou survival during nonlethal or lethal wolf control.”
The research on the Fortymile Caribou Herd in Alaska showed that herd’s growth from 6,000 to 52,000 between 1973 and 2014 couldn’t be attributed to culling predators. In fact, the abundance of caribou appeared to negatively impact the herd because the animals overgrazed, leaving them too little to eat.
Conservationists are lashing out at Interior’s new directive. Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, called it shameful.
“The National Park Service must have the authority to prevent potentially indiscriminate killing of bears and their cubs on national park lands,” she said. The order “ignores individuals who spoke up in support of bears and wolves … and more than 70,000 Americans who said no to baiting bears with grease-soaked doughnuts in Denali.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. Alaska officials and sportsmen who sued Interior this year contend that the existing federal rules infringe on the frontier culture of their state, where many residents hunt to put food on their plates.
After Congress voted to rescind the Obama administration’s order, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in a statement that “many hunt for survival, both personal and cultural. Alaskans have been able to maintain these strong and life-sustaining traditions through a rigorous scientific process that allows for public participation and ensures we manage our fish and game for sustainability, as required by the Alaska Constitution.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) echoed that sentiment, saying managing wildlife “is something in Alaska that we take very, very seriously.”
But Fran Mauer, a retired wildlife biologist who worked at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said Alaska’s methods lack balance.
“I think most reasonable Americans can look at it and say this is excessive,” he said. “The federal government has bent over backwards to work with the state and found that had a responsibility to preempt their rules. Now Trump wants the Parks Service to review those regulations. The American public deserves to know what’s going on in Alaska with our national conservation areas.”