Trump administration proposes reversal of Obama-era hunting rule in Alaska’s national parks

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is taking another stab at controversial hunting regulations for national preserves in Alaska.

In a proposed regulation published online Monday, the National Park Service floated plans to peel back National Park Service hunting restrictions established during the Obama administration in October 2015. The goal is to promote hunting and trapping activities and better align federal and state regulations, according to the park service.

National preserves are parts of national parks designated by Congress to allow fishing, hunting, mining or other resource extraction. Central to the dispute is a 1994 state law that focuses on controlling predators — wolves, bears and other carnivores — in order to keep game such as caribou abundant for hunters. The Obama-era park service said that federal law doesn't support reducing predators to boost populations of their prey.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is vociferously opposed to the rule, which he said tramples on the state's regulatory control over hunting. Young was able to pass a law revoking a similar Obama-era regulation issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, because the administration issued it nearer to the end of President Barack Obama's final term. But the park service rule remained in place.

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The 2015 rule demonstrated a long-running disagreement between federal and state game management officials on how to best manage predator populations in Alaska. In 2015, the park service said that certain hunting practices mess with predator-prey dynamics and upset the balance for harvest purposes, while causing problems for public safety.

But now the park service — under a new administration — has changed its mind. The proposed rule will delete portions of the 2015 rule that set limits on hunting that are not in line with state regulations.


The banned practices the park service plans to reverse include: "taking any black bear, including cubs and sows with cubs, with artificial light at den sites; harvesting brown bears over bait; taking wolves and coyotes (including pups) during the denning season (between May 1 and August 9); taking swimming caribou; taking caribou from motorboats under power; taking black bears over bait; and using dogs to hunt black bears," according to the proposed rule.

The state disputes that the hunting methods currently barred by the park service "are intended to function as a predator control program," the proposed rule said. "The State also maintains that any effects to the natural abundances, diversities, distributions, densities, age-class distributions, populations, habitats, genetics, and behaviors of wildlife from implementing its regulations are likely negligible," the proposed rule said.

The park service also points to the state's argument that baiting bears doesn't' cause them to become "food-conditioned, and therefore a greater safety concern."

The legal basis for reversing the Obama-era decision lies in two orders issued by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last year, according to the Interior Department. In one (Order 3347), urged expanded access to hunting and fishing on public lands and better consultation with state wildlife management. In the other (Order 3356), instructs the park service to find more opportunities for hunting on public lands, work with state wildlife agencies to ensure regulations on federal land match those on nearby lands, and change regulations to "advance shared wildlife conservation goals/objectives that align predator management programs, seasons, and methods of take" to match state wildlife agencies.

The environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife quickly attacked the proposal, saying that the federal government is wrongly proposing to hand its authority over to the state.

"Alaska's express goal for managing wildlife is to artificially increase game populations by driving down carnivore numbers. Its policy would allow hunters to bait, trap and snare bears, and kill black bears and cubs and wolves and pups in their dens. The proposed regulation would also remove the current prohibition against killing defenseless caribou from boats or shore as they swim across rivers in national preserves," said Defenders of Wildlife.

The group's president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, called the move a "new low" for the Trump administration's wildlife policies.

"Allowing the killing of bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens is barbaric and inhumane. The proposed regulations cast aside the very purpose of national parks to protect wildlife and wild places," Rappaport said. "The National Park Service should not accept Alaska's extreme predator control program as a suitable method of managing wildlife and their habitat."

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.