Alaska News

State's predator control push prompts USFWS limits on Alaska refuges

A new rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sharply limits predator control on Alaska's national wildlife refuges over loud opposition from hunting advocates and state wildlife officials.

Critics including U.S. Rep. Don Young also denounced the rule as usurping the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which gave the state wildlife management authority on state, private and federal lands.

Alaska's national wildlife refuges cover nearly 77 million acres and make up more than three quarters of the nation's refuge lands. The landmark Conservation Act added some 54 million acres of land to the refuge system in Alaska and designated more than 18 million acres of wilderness.

The new rule comes in response to the Alaska Board of Game's increasingly aggressive approval of bear and other predator hunts in and around refuges, federal officials say.

In the "distant past," the Fish and Wildlife Service successfully asked the board to exempt refuge lands from predator hunts intended to increase local moose or caribou populations, according to Mitch Ellis, chief of refuges for the agency's Alaska region.

More recently, Ellis said, the Game Board has increasingly liberalized hunts and methods like bait to kill more predators and help hunters.

"Our primary purpose in Alaska is to conserve the natural diversity of predators," he said. "Managing predators to scarcity is inconsistent with that mandate."

Ellis said hunters shouldn't see "dramatic" changes to hunting methods on refuge lands, though several hunts in the Yukon-Charley Rivers, Koyukuk and Innoko refuges will stop next month.

The final rule announced Wednesday prohibits "several particularly effective" ways to kill predators including killing cubs or sows with cubs; brown bears over bait; bears using traps or snares; wolves or coyote from May through Aug. 9; and bears from an aircraft or the same day air travel has occurred.

It states hunter demands for more animals — moose, deer or caribou — no longer justify predator control on refuge lands. Rather, any control needs to meet refuge purposes and be based on "sound science in response to a conservation concern."

The rule, expected to become effective on Sept. 6, also updates public notification procedures for refuge closures and restrictions. The National Park Service adopted similar policies last year.

It doesn't change federal subsistence rules, officials say.

The state's top wildlife conservation official called the federal rule "very disappointing."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is opposed to predator control to provide healthy game meat for humans but does other predator control like killing mink to bring back oil-threatened pigeon guillemot stocks in Prince William Sound, said Bruce Dale, director of Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

"They're more influenced by outside groups than they are by Alaskans and Alaskans need for food and food security," Dale said.

Ted Spraker, the Soldotna-based chair of the Game Board, said it responded to requests from the public to increase hunting opportunities on predators.

"The board has not waged war on predators," Spraker said. "What we're doing is we're trying to maintain sustainable populations."

Annihilating predators is exactly what the board wants to do, and why the feds opted to clarify predator control policies, charged David Raskin, the Homer-based board president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.

"It's been ongoing for a long time," Raskin said. "The Board of Game has promulgated rules that are just outrageous in terms of killing bears, wolves, coyotes."

Wildlife biologists have found that eliminating predators over time can lead to fewer prey species, especially when their declines are linked to poor food availability and other habitat problems, he said.

Probably the loudest criticism of the new rule centered on potential conflicts with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

"It's huge," said Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council. "What it goes back to is changing the purposes of the refuges."

The federal action trumps the state's constitutional obligation to manage moose and other wildlife for "sustained yield," Arno said.

Under the Conservation Act, each refuge in Alaska has a list of purposes for which it was established, including the first-listed purpose to "conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity" according to the Fish and Wildlife Service rule.

Young issued a press release Wednesday condemning the rule, calling it a "unilateral power grab" that undermines promises made by the Alaska statehood compact and ignores ANILCA provisions to protect Alaska's sovereignty and management authority.

Earlier this year, he criticized the contention that a 1997 law Young sponsored — the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act — gave the agency the authority for the new rule.

In his statement, Young said he included an amendment in a House-passed appropriation act to block funding for the rule.

Thousands of comments came in response to the original proposal, unveiled in January. The Fish and Wildlife Service held nine public hearings around the state and initiated a public comment period that lasted three months.

Officials offering to consult with tribes and Alaska Native corporations heard from 28 and met with eight tribes as well as Doyon Corp.

The Fish and Wildlife Service ended up with 3,643 "pieces of correspondence" — about 2,500 of them form letters, according to the final rule.

The "vast majority" supported the rule, Ellis said. "Even in Alaska, the majority of comments were in favor."