The Trump administration has ordered a review of rules that have barred aggressive predator control on Alaska's federal preserves and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
In reviewing the rules, new administration officials assert that the Obama administration had been accused of meddling in the state's business when it came to methods to reduce predators and increase numbers of large game animals for hunters.
The review comes in light of "widespread criticism and concern from Alaskans about the previous administration's micromanaging Alaska wildlife as well as extensive conversations with Department officials," Interior Department press secretary Heather Swift wrote in an email Friday.
But any changes — none have been proposed yet — would still have to go through the same extensive public comment process as federal regulations now on the books banning bear baiting, killing wolf pups in dens and other measures allowed on state lands in Alaska.
Thousands of public comments from around the United States voiced support for those Obama-era regulations adopted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016.
"It's certainly an attempt by the Trump administration to do away with these wildlife protection rules," said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility board member. "I don't think they're going to be able to do it. I think the public process will come up with either the same or a stronger result as it did before."
The federal regulations drew loud criticism from politicians and hunting advocates in Alaska, where state policies encourage more hunting and trapping of wolves and bears to boost moose and caribou numbers.
The state in January sued the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over predator control that, among other things, was criticized for undercutting subsistence hunting.
That lawsuit may be put on hold in light of the actions by the Interior Department.
Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Virginia Johnson issued twin memos last week ordering the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to initiate a rulemaking process to reconsider agency rules regarding predator control.
Johnson directed the agencies to reconsider "various prohibitions that directly contradict" state authorizations and wildlife management decisions, thereby potentially reducing opportunities for wildlife-related recreation."
Asked if predator-prey research or cooperation with the state underlies the directive, Swift said in an emailed statement that "insinuating any predetermined results based upon a review is premature."
Any statements "by external groups" that a "policy has been set are not accurate," she said, referring to a flurry of media statements from environmental groups attacking the Interior memos. "The Department is committed to working with the people of Alaska on how to best manage their wildlife and habitat."
She said the department doesn't have a timeline yet for the process.
In the meantime, the existing predator control regulations remain in place. But the Interior directives are already having an effect. The agency has asked the state to put the predator control lawsuit on hold, according to Alaska Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills.
The state and other parties — the Safari Club is also a plaintiff — are currently considering whether a "limited stay" is appropriate, Mills wrote in an email Thursday. The state wants the "unlawful regulations" on federal preserves and refuges revoked but will "pursue its case if the rulemaking does not resolve the illegality of the rules," she wrote.
Still in place: a separate lawsuit filed by the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity challenging the revocation of the Fish and Wildlife Service predator control rule.
The Interior directive was greeted with immediate jeers from wildlife advocates who said the state's mission to increase game animals by killing predators conflicts with the statutory responsibility of the federal agencies to promote wildlife diversity for all animals — including predators.
Trustees of Alaska, which represents 15 groups opposing the state litigation, this week said the rulemaking directive has the potential to undermine refuges and preserve mandates to protect natural diversity.
The directives also promote a state's rights agenda at the expense of good science, said Fran Mauer, a retired federal wildlife biologist who represents the Alaska chapter of Wilderness Watch.
Predator control doesn't always work, Mauer said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has announced the re-evaluation of its largest wolf control program — the Upper Yukon Tanana area program — next year after research indicated poor nutrition, not wolves, was the likely cause of low survival rates for the Fortymile Caribou Herd.
"The Trump administration is politically siding with those in the state of Alaska who support predator control, and certain hunting groups, not all, cling to the notion that less wolves would mean more moose and caribou and no wolves at all would be a hunters' paradise," Mauer said.
The Kenai is the only refuge named in the Interior directive, because it didn't fall under a Congressional Review Act measure to repeal some hunting limits on Alaska federal wildlife refuges.
Refuge managers didn't return calls for comment.
Park Service spokesman John Quinley emailed comments saying the agency is working with administration officials to "determine the best way to implement the memo's instructions. We expect to provide additional information and opportunities for public comment throughout the process."
While hunting is not allowed in traditional national parks, some Alaska parks have adjacent preserves managed by the Park Service that allow hunting.