A U.S. Senate Committee Wednesday passed language that would pre-emptively block a draft Fish & Wildlife Service rule seeking to ban some predator control in national wildlife refuges.
The proposed rule is the latest in a long-running tug-of-war between the state and the feds over how to manage wildlife in Alaska.
In the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday, Sen, Dan Sullivan introduced an amendment that says Fish and Wildlife can’t implement a recently proposed rule to ban certain management practices in Alaska refuges.
“These proposed regulations, as currently written by the Fish and Wildlife Service, would fundamentally alter not only how we now manage wildlife refuges and the Fish and Wildlife habitats on them,” said
Sullivan, “but will also change the relationship between Fish and Wildlife and individual states from one of cooperation – which it should be – to subservience.”
Fish and Wildlife manages nearly 77 million acres of land in Alaska, in 16 national wildlife refuges.
The practices that Fish & Wildlife intends to ban in those areas are what the state calls “intensive management” – like baiting brown bears, same-day airborne hunting of bears, and harvesting wolves and coyotes during denning season.
Susan Alexander is Manager for the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuges. She says the state has used intensive management in game management units that overlap with 13 of the state’s 16 refuges.
“What it means is the state in those areas is focusing on practices to reduce predator populations to increase the availability of certain species – moose and caribou for harvest by people,” said Alexander. “And that involves some specific targeted control of predators that are practices that are counter to our mandates.”
Fish and Wildlife is federally mandated to manage for “biological diversity,” “biological integrity” and “environmental health” in refuges.
“And then within ANILCA, each of the refuges has a purpose which is to manage for “natural diversity,” explains Alexander.
Also within ANILCA is Title VIII, which gives Alaska Natives and rural residents priority for subsistence hunting.
On the state side, the Alaska Board of Game has its own Constitutional mandate to manage wildlife for the benefit of all citizens.
This clutter of legal frameworks has created confusion – and sometimes contention – going back two decades. Conservationists support the federal restrictions. Hunters, however, and the state of Alaska and its Congressional delegation, view each proposal as another example of federal over reach.
“Both sides are making laws to protect what they got,” says Frank Wood, chairman of the Nushagak Fish and Game Advisory Committee, “and users are stuck in between.”
Wood spent years working on subsistence issues with the Bristol Bay Native Association, and reminds people that what’s really at stake for local users is big game that wolves and bears prey on.
“When I first got into resource management for subsistence use at BBNA, we had seven established wolf packs in Bristol Bay, and they decimated the caribou populations and decimated the calving population of moose spring and wintertime, right behind the villages of Port Heiden, Egegik, Ugashik. Those lands on federal side are off-limits for any intensive management.”
That particular stretch of the Peninsula is split longways, between federal land – the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof Refuges – on the Gulf of Alaska side, and state land on the Bristol Bay side. Wood says hunters there were able to control the wolf population on one side of the boundary, but not the other.
And over time, Wood says, the dual management system has become too complicated for local users to keep up with.
“And it becomes really taxing for the user to know what land they’re sitting on, what regulation they fall under,” says Wood. “It really isn’t fair to Alaskans to have to always be aware of all the changing regulations. There ain’t enough time, enough people, enough money to keep a pulse on everything.”
“So whatever we come up with, I hope we’re not 20 years from now, doing the same thing.”
Last year the National Park Service took the lead on predator control hunting restrictions, finalizing similar rules for Park and Preserve lands in October 2015.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which generally manages for much more liberal hunting practices on refuge lands, let NPS test the waters before moving forward too.
Sullivan’s amendment to stop the Fish and Wildlife rule passed the Committee by a vote of 12 to 8; it will be added to the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2015. That bill heads next to the Senate.
Meanwhile, the public has a 60-day comment period to weigh in on the Fish and Wildlife rule; Governor Bill Walker has asked the feds to extend that out another two months.
Several months of public hearings kick off January 26th in Kotzebue. A public meeting will be held in Dillingham March 1st.