NATIONAL PARKS

Ban on predator hunting in Alaska preserves sparks uproar

In the past decade, the National Park Service has objected to at least 50 proposals by Alaska wildlife officials to liberalize the killing of predators within national preserves, but to no avail.

"We've gotten nowhere," said John Quinley, the Park Service's Alaska spokesman.

Predator control, which aims to suppress numbers of bears, wolves and coyotes in order to boost prey species, including moose and caribou, is incompatible with the Park Service's mandate to preserve "natural ecosystems," including at its 20 million acres of national preserves in Alaska, NPS said.

So about a month ago, the agency dropped a regulatory hammer.

It proposed a first-ever permanent ban on three predator hunting practices that were illegal under Alaska law until their recent approval by the state's Board of Game.

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The proposal would ban the baiting of brown bears, the hunting of wolves and coyotes during the denning and pupping period before their pelts have any commercial value, and the use of artificial light to shoot black bear sows and cubs at their dens, a technique known as "spotlighting."

Sport hunting, illegal in national parks, is allowed in Alaska's national preserves under a law Congress passed in 1980.

Bert Frost, NPS's Alaska regional director, said the move is a response to Alaska's aim to "drive down predator populations and boost game species" and would merely codify years of temporary bans at preserves. The vast majority of state sport hunting regulations would remain unchanged, he said.

But it has touched raw nerves in a state known for its rugged individualism.

Neither bears, wolves nor coyotes are federally protected in the Last Frontier, and they therefore remain under the jurisdiction of the state.

Hunting advocates said the Park Service was exceeding its authority under its 1916 Organic Act. Doug Vincent-Lang, who leads wildlife conservation at Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, accused the agency of imposing the "personal views and ethics of individual park superintendents," saying spotlighting has long been a tradition of Alaska Natives.

"A practice that has been done for millennia in Alaska is suddenly unethical?" he said.

The proposal is backed strongly by the National Parks Conservation Association as well as some former state wildlife and elected officials, who say those predator control practices flout the Park Service's mandate and depart from long-established hunting ethics.

In baiting, bears are lured to a 55-gallon drum filled with doughnuts, bacon grease and other goodies while a hunter waits in a tree stand. Bears that are too small to be worth shooting become habituated to human foods and often become a threat to public safety and themselves, NPS said.

In spotlighting, black bears are shot while they hibernate.

"These are not the Alaska hunting practices I learned growing up in Southeast Alaska," wrote Joel Hard, deputy director for NPS's Alaska region, in a Sept. 9 op-ed in the Alaska Dispatch.

The NPS proposal is the latest in a string of Obama administration decisions curbing Alaska wildlife policies on federal lands.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 rejected Alaska's proposal to gun down wolves from helicopters in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to save caribou calves. In late August, Fish and Wildlife announced a temporary closure of brown bear hunting at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, saying harvests by Alaska hunters threatened a population decline.

The Park Service has long prohibited the aerial shooting of wolves at preserves.

Why pick another wildlife fight with Alaska?

"That should tell you how egregious this situation is," said Jim Stratton, who directs NPCA's Alaska offices.

Stratton praised the Park Service proposal, saying the agency had been "snubbed" by the Board of Game for years.

"The state's attitude is 'Screw you. It's our way or the highway,'" Stratton said. "They're turning the state of Alaska into a game farm."

The rule would apply only to sport hunters, as opposed to federal subsistence hunters, and would extend to national preserves at Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay, Yukon-Charley Rivers, Gates of the Arctic, Noatak, Bering Land Bridge, Lake Clark, Katmai and Aniakchak.

The agency is taking public comment through Dec. 3 and will be hosting at least 15 public hearings and consultations with tribes. The proposal has prompted biting op-eds in the Alaska Dispatch.

2-decade fight

The conflict can be traced back to 1994, when the Alaska Legislature passed a law mandating that the Board of Game pursue intensive management "to maintain, restore, or increase the abundance of big game prey populations for human consumptive use," according to a 2007 article in the Alaska Law Review by University of Alaska, Fairbanks, professor Julie Lurman and NPS subsistence manager Sanford Rabinowitch.

The law was not aggressively applied until 2002, when former Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) appointed five new members to the seven-member Board of Game, which dictates hunting rules. Critics say Murkowski stacked the board in favor of intensive predator control. Former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Gov. Sean Parnell (R) have followed suit.

"I divide my 40 years in Alaska into two categories," said Vic Van Ballenberghe, a biologist who studies moose in Denali National Park, "everything prior to 2002 and everything since 2002."

Ballenberghe served one full three-year term and two partial terms on the board. Murkowski fired him in 2003.

While sport hunting and trapping are illegal in Alaska's national parks -- as they are in all Lower 48 state parks -- they were allowed in national preserves under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, which mandated that preserves be managed to sustain "healthy" wildlife populations.

Congress mandated that preserves be managed "in the same manner as a national park" except as otherwise provided by ANILCA. NPS policies implementing its Organic Act require parks to protect "natural ecosystems and processes, including the natural abundances, diversities, distributions, densities, age-class distributions, populations, habitats, genetics, and behaviors of wildlife."

NPS said the proposed hunting restrictions would not affect subsistence hunters, who enjoy special rights under ANILCA. Quinley said he doesn't believe the banned activities are very common in Alaska. In addition, national preserves make up less than 6 percent of Alaska lands open to hunting, NPS said.

Since the 1980s, when Alaska authorized black bear baiting, fewer than 37 of the animals have been harvested in preserves, NPS said. Three of those bears were harvested by subsistence hunters, it said.

"Many of the same concerns with taking brown bears over bait also apply to black bear baiting," NPS said in its rule. "It is generally agreed that food-conditioned bears are more likely to be a danger to humans than bears that are not food-conditioned and are also more likely to be killed in defense of life and property. For these reasons, natural resource agencies throughout North America discourage intentionally feeding bears."

Restrictions on predator hunting have helped prevent "steep and long term depression of these predator populations and wanton waste of wolf and coyote hides," the agency said in an environmental assessment of its proposed restrictions.

Ethics debate

But Alaska officials dispute NPS's claims that the three hunting methods at stake are "predator control."

"The state of Alaska does do predation management, but this is not it," said Vincent-Lang of the Department of Fish and Game. "These tools are not effective."

Rather, the board's decision to allow practices such as spotlighting of black bears and brown bear baiting was made at the request of Alaska Natives, who consider those techniques part of their heritage, Vincent-Lang said.

Bears are abundant in Alaska's interior, a fact NPS acknowledges, Vincent-Lang said.

Those practices, along with taking coyotes and wolves in the early season, would not jeopardize "sustained use principles," he added. "Our first metric is 'Does it affect the conservation of species?'"

In a Sept. 20 op-ed in the Dispatch, Vincent-Lang argued that "professionals at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game did not feel it was our role to judge the ethics of these practices."

According to ADFG, the board "legally recognized long-standing cultural practices by resident hunters to harvest black bears in dens (including cubs and females with cubs) and, for safety reasons, to use artificial light." Natives historically used torches.

In a Feb. 14, 2013, letter to NPS's then-Regional Director Sue Masica, ADFG wrote that it was "concerned by the influence the Service is exerting over state hunting regulations."

Others argue that ethics have played -- and should play -- a role in the board's decisionmaking.

For example, the board prohibits the "wanton waste" of game meat and promotes fair chase of animals, said Ballenberghe, the biologist. It also banned same-day airborne hunting, in which a pilot can spot a moose in a lake, land on that lake and then shoot the moose.

"It was made illegal in the mid-1970s because it wasn't fair," Ballenberghe said. "That's not a biological decision. It's an ethical decision."

Still, hunters are expected to stand behind the board's decision, whether they target predators or not, said Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state-level affiliate of the National Rifle Association.

"The hunting community is going to back the Board of Game to the fullest extent," he said.

Arno said brown bear baiting "is a technique that does work, and there are numerous Alaska hunters who participate in it," he said. Some guides take clients into the preserves to do baiting, he said.

An email to the Alaska Professional Hunters Association asking for comment was not returned.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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