Court upholds hunting and bear baiting restrictions for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

A blue, glacial lake with the terminus of a glacier in the distance
The decision upheld a prior ruling that said the state does not have the authority to regulate hunting on federal public lands like the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

A federal judge has affirmed a decision that upheld restrictions on hunting and brown bear baiting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The ruling quashes another attempt from the state of Alaska and hunting advocates to overturn a contentious Obama-era rule.

Local conservationist groups cheer the decision. Nicole Schmitt is executive director of Alaska Wildlife Alliance, one of the case’s intervening defendants. She said her organization is excited, particularly for the brown bear protections that will be upheld.

“For people who live in the Kenai area and who enjoy the refuge, enjoy seeing the bears and recreating in this high-use area, I think it is a decision that strengthens that those opportunities are still going to be available and protects Kenai brown bears to the extent that they need to be protected as a genetically distinct population,” she said.

The decision is the latest in a legal battle dating back to 2016, when then-President Barack Obama imposed a set of regulations for the federally managed Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The so-called “Kenai Rule” placed restrictions on hunting and trapping in the 2-million-acre refuge, including limits to brown-bear baiting and hunting in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.

Soon after the rule passed, hunting advocacy group Safari Club International and the state of Alaska sued the federal government, arguing they overstepped their authority. They said the rule that first established the refuge, the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, gives the state the ultimate authority to regulate hunting on its federal lands.

A district court judge disagreed and ruled in favor of the federal government and the original Kenai Rule in 2020. Soon after, Safari Club and the state appealed.

Today, a judge with the Ninth Circuit court — the federal court of appeals for Alaska and several other states — upheld that original decision. Judge Ronald Gould agreed that the federal government has power over Alaska’s public lands, even if ANILCA gives the state responsibility for its wildlife. And when state and federal regulations compete, the judge said, the federal regulations prevail.

“Not only do the cited legal principles and laws tell us that federal law has primacy over federal lands, but also common sense tells us the same,” Gould wrote. “The federal government, and not a single state, has control over federal lands which benefit the entire country.”

Doug Vincent-Lang is the commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which has argued against the refuge restrictions since they were first passed in 2016.

In an email, he said the department is disappointed in the ruling and believes the court “failed to understand the intricacies of [ANILCA] relative to state and federal management authority.”

He said Fish and Game will consider its options.

Regina Lennox, litigation counsel for Safari Club, said the same.

“We believe the panel misinterpreted the statutes and record and were overly deferential to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s unsupported rule,” she said. “Safari Club is considering further appellate options, particularly in view of the Supreme Court’s recent track record of reversing Ninth Circuit rulings on ANILCA.”

She pointed to a case in 2019 when the court ruled the state and not the National Park Service could regulate its rivers after an Alaska moose hunter sued the Park Service.

For her part, Schmitt said she hopes it’s the end to what’s been a years-long court process.

“This appeal essentially upholds the original decision, that the 2015 rule was legal and in matching the interest of the refuge and its management decisions,” she said. “So I don’t know that there’s much else to go beyond this.”

Several years back, President Donald Trump proposed a related slate of changes to refuge rules that would have allowed brown bear baiting and would reverse restrictions on trapping near trailheads in the Kenai refuge. Those proposed changes were never passed.

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