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Thousands protest Zinke move to expand hunting at wildlife preserves

by John Siciliano

The National Park Service’s proposal to ramp up hunting of wolves and bears in Alaska’s wildlife preserves is sparking tens of thousands of public comments asking the administration to scrap the proposal.

“As one of 1.3 million members and supporters of the National Parks Conservation Association, I strongly oppose the National Park Service’s attempt to roll back 2015 clarifications of existing park authority to protect bears and wolves on Alaska national preserves,” read one of the over 100,000 comments filed, so far, with the agency ahead of the Sept. 6 deadline.

“Extreme sport hunting methods, like brown bear baiting and killing hibernating black bear mothers and cubs in dens, don’t belong on national preserves in Alaska,” the comment continued.

The National Parks Conservation Association is waging a campaign to stop Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hunting plan in Alaska. The group argues that the new rule would “force the Park Service to surrender its authority to protect bears and wolves and return to these shameful and unethical practices” of baiting the animals when their young are still suckling.

The deadline for submitting one’s protests, or approval, of the new Park Service hunting program follows a federal judge’s order Thursday halting a grizzly bear trophy hunt in Yellowstone, which could presage trouble for the new Alaska proposal.

The Montana federal judge suggested he could reverse the Interior Department’s decision to remove federal protections for the Yellowstone bears in the coming weeks, after delaying the hunt in Idaho and Wyoming. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reduced protective status for the bears earlier this summer.

If the judge does deem the wildlife service’s decision as improper or illegal, it could spell trouble for the Parks Service’s program by emboldening conservation groups and others to invoke precedent in opposing it.

But time will tell.

The National Parks Service’s proposed program in Alaska is the latest in Zinke’s push to allow more hunting on federal lands.

“As stewards of our public lands, Interior is committed to opening access wherever possible for hunting and fishing so that more families have the opportunity to pass down this American heritage,” Zinke said in May, announcing a new effort to open 248,000 acres of land to hunting and fishing at 30 national wildlife refuges.

“These 30 refuges will provide incredible opportunities for American sportsmen and women across the country to access the land and connect with wildlife,” he said. The Alaska rule proposes to change rules and regulations governing sport hunting and trapping in national preserves in Alaska that were implemented by the Obama administration.

The 2015 regulations prohibited specific hunting and trapping activities currently allowed under Alaska state law, according to the proposed rule, which seeks to give the state more authority in managing hunting in the state when it comes to the federal preserves.

Meanwhile, President Trump announced the nomination of David Vela to serve as the director of the National Park Service on Friday.

“David Vela has demonstrated all of the ideals that the National Park Service stands for, and his long track record of leadership on behalf of the people and places of the National Park Service distinguish him as the right man for the job,” said Zinke in a statement. “Our extraordinary national parks will be in the best of hands with David at the helm.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said her main concern was reducing the maintenance backlog at the national parks.

“As we seek to improve the culture of the agency and address its multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog, I look forward to meeting him and scheduling a hearing on his nomination in the near future,” Murkowski said.