Supreme Court to hear moose hunter’s hovercraft ban challenge

By Robin Bravender, Jeremy P. Jacobs | 10/01/2015 01:00 PM EDT

The Supreme Court today agreed to hear an Alaska moose hunter’s challenge to a federal ban on using hovercraft on National Park Service waterways.

John Sturgeon has taken annual moose hunting trips near Alaska’s Canadian border on the Yukon River and its tributary the Nation River since 1971.

In 2007, Sturgeon was operating his personal hovercraft in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve during a hunting trip when National Park Service enforcement agents told him the vehicle was banned in waters inside the preserve.


He left the preserve and attempted "unsuccessfully to conduct his moose hunting elsewhere," his attorneys told a federal appeals court last year. Sturgeon sued the Alaska regional director of the National Park Service in 2011.

Sturgeon’s legal effort has been unsuccessful thus far. Last October, a federal appeals court rejected his challenge to the hovercraft ban (E&ENews PM, Oct. 6, 2014).

The hunter has argued that all navigable rivers within Alaska’s national parks are "state owned" lands, and that the law prevents NPS from regulating activities on those waters even if they are within the boundaries of national parks.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the government in the case, affirming a district court’s ruling that rejected Sturgeon’s argument. The appeals court said the law "unambiguously forecloses" Sturgeon’s interpretation, and that "because of its general applicability, the regulation may be enforced on both public and nonpublic lands alike" within NPS units in Alaska.

Alaska has also gotten involved in the case, arguing that the NPS regulations infringe on its rights. It filed an amicus brief supporting Sturgeon at the Supreme Court, as has the hunting rights group Safari Club International.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli urged the Supreme Court to deny Sturgeon’s appeal to take the case, noting that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act expressly grants the Park Service authority to regulate boats and other crafts on waterways within service lands.

"Every judge to consider petitioner’s claim has correctly rejected it, and petitioner’s claim does not implicate any disagreement among courts of appeals," Verrilli wrote in a brief to the court. "Moreover, petitioner’s claim that this dispute is one of such exceptional importance as to merit this Court’s intervention in the absence of any disagreement rests on misunderstandings of NPS’s regulations and of the decision below. Further review is not warranted."

The court will issue a decision in Sturgeon v. Masica before next June.