State sues federal land managers over predator hunting restrictions

Denali wolf
(Photo by Kent Miller, Denali National Park)

The State of Alaska has sued several federal land management agencies and top officials over a series of new predator hunting restrictions that went into effect over the past two years.

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The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service violated provisions of four federal laws when the agencies banned certain hunting practices on refuge and national preserve land, including the taking of brown bears over bait, the same-day airborne hunting of bears and the hunting of bear cubs in certain circumstances.

At the heart of the dispute are differing interpretations of key terms such as “natural diversity,” which the federal agencies claim to be protecting via the predator hunting restrictions. But Alaska Assistant Attorney General Cheryl Brooking argued that federal wildlife managers are willing to take those protections too far.  She cited a recent example involving caribou on Unimak Island, in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

“The wolves had moved in on the birthing grounds and the State wanted permission to go in and take out some of the wolves to preserve the caribou, because that is a very important subsistence resource for the people in that area,” Brooking said. “And the response from the federal government was, ‘well, we are just going to let the natural processes occur and it’s OK to let the caribou blink out.’  That was the term used – “blink out.”  The State doesn’t manage that way.  We manage for sustained yield of predators and prey, and we recognize the importance of hunting.”

Brookings also noted that the State plans to take the federal agencies to task for failing to demonstrate a biological need for the increased predator hunting restrictions – which she argues violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“ANILCA allows the federal government to institute closures for ‘periods when or areas where’ a closure is necessary for conservation of the resource, or for protection of subsistence,” Brookings said. “Without any scientific or biological reason for these closures, then that is a clear violation of ANILCA.“

The suit asks the court to vacate both the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service versions of the rule, to repay the state’s legal costs, and to instruct the federal agencies to improve their consultations with the State of Alaska regarding wildlife management in the future.

Representatives from the Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in Anchorage declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the need for more time to review the suit and coordinate with agency lawyers.

But after a public meeting in Galena last March, when the Fish and Wildlife version of the rule was in draft form, Chief of Alaska Refuges Mitch Ellis said that the rule was more about formalizing the agency’s guiding principles rather than rejecting all forms of predator control outright. 

“I do want to make it clear: our agency is not against predator control.  Our agency uses predator control for a number of things: restoring species, when it helps meet the purpose of the refuge, etc,” Ellis said. “What are doing here is clarifying when it is appropriate and when it is not.”

The rule classifies the hunting practices in question as “highly efficient methods and means” of harvesting animals, and finds them out of line with federal wildlife management mandates.

Federal officials named in the suit include Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe, and Acting Director of the National Park Service Michael Reynolds. These officials are likely to be leaving their posts soon as the new Trump Administration takes over, but the presidential transition had nothing to do with the decision to file the lawsuit last week, according to Assistant Attorney General Brooking.

The federal government has 60 days to file a response to the suit.

Aside from the lawsuit, Alaska’s congressional delegation has been trying to overturn or defund the new rules using legislation, but without success.  Congressman Don Young’s office says that those legislative efforts will resume when the Trump Administration takes office.

The predator hunting restrictions can also be overruled and replaced by the Federal Subsistence Board for federally-qualified subsistence users on federal land.