New federal predator hunting restrictions to face state legal challenge

New federal predator hunting rules are in effect. (Photo courtesy of ADFG)
New federal predator hunting rules are in effect. (Photo courtesy of ADFG)
A series of predator hunting restrictions for national wildlife refuges in Alaska took effect on Tuesday.That same day, Governor Bill Walker revealed that the state is organizing a lawsuit against the federal government to resist the new rules. And Alaska’s congressional delegation is looking for ways to reverse the changes as well. But as of now, the new rules are in effect on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges – prompting at least a few hunters to change their plans.

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The new rules ban certain hunting practices such as the same-day airborne hunting of bears and the taking of brown bears over bait, which had been allowed to occur on refuge land under state regulations. Though the Fish and Wildlife Service identified those techniques as leading to the “non-subsistence take” of predators, the new restrictions still apply to federally-qualified subsistence users like Galena’s Charlie Green.

“We had plans with some other friends to go to Three Day Slough, which is on federal land [the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge], to do some grizzly bear baiting on the 17th of September. So this is going to have to change our plans,” said Green.

Green says that he retains the hides from any grizzly bears he takes, but the meat is only good for trapping bait. He was one of many local hunters in Galena who spoke out against the new federal rules when they were proposed earlier this year – in part because they take efficient predator control options off of the table, but also because the rules seemed motivated more by politics than any conservation concerns.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service published the final version of the rules in early August, agency director Dan Ashe portrayed the rules as a necessary defense against the types of inhumane hunting practices that are often endorsed by the Alaska Board of Game.

Dr. David Raskin, president of the citizen group Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, agrees.

“The State of Alaska has engaged in a very aggressive campaign over the years to eliminate predators throughout the state, and this is totally unacceptable from a biological point of view. Particularly on the national wildlife refuges, which are required to maintain their populations in their natural state,” said Raskin.

Raskin argues that the current rules don’t go far enough, and would like to see the Fish and Wildlife Service ban the use of all bait to hunt any type of bear, including the use of gut piles from legally-killed game animals like moose. That practice is still permitted on refuge land, because a gut pile at a kill site does not fit the definition of bait according to the new regulations.

The latest volley in the legal and political battle over the new rules occurred on September 6th, when Governor Bill Walker told the Alaska Journal of Commerce that the state is coordinating with other opponents of the new rules to file a lawsuit. It is unclear when that suit will be filed.

Alaska’s congressional delegation in Washington D.C. is opposed to the new rules as well. Earlier this year, Congressman Don Young attached a provision to the Interior Department appropriations bill, which forbids the Fish and Wildlife Service from spending any money on enforcing the new rules. That bill passed the House as amended, and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Young’s spokesperson Matt Shuckerow says that the predator hunting restrictions go against the spirit and letter of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA.

“And you know that law protects Alaska’s ability to manage wildlife across all areas of our state, including private and federal lands. And so we are going to see an increasing attack on that ability, that special unique relationship that Alaska has, defined in law. It is the delegation’s responsibility to stand up to those, to enforce the law, and to make sure that Alaska’s unique relationship with the federal government is protected,” said Shuckerow.

Even if attempts to derail the rules in court and in Congress don’t work, the Federal Subsistence Board can overturn parts of the rule in specific areas for subsistence users. But for now, the hunting of brown bears over bait, the same-day airborne hunting of bears, the trapping of bears, and taking of wolves and coyotes during the denning season are forbidden on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges.

Given that the new regulations are coming into effect just as hunters are headed out in the field for fall season hunts, Koyukuk, Nowitna and Innoko National Wildlife Refuge Manager Kenton Moos in Galena says that his agency will have to walk a fine line.

“So obviously we need to do our part to educate the public. With that said, our law enforcement officers are out and about. As with all game regulations and so forth, they will take appropriate measures when they see violations in progress,” said Moos.

Moos says that whether or not individuals are cited for violating the new rules will depend largely on the discretion of the wildlife enforcement officers.