Wildlife

National Park Service proposes ban on ‘controversial’ hunting and trapping methods in Alaska’s federal preserves

grizzly, river, denali, september, fall

The National Park Service wants to reinstate bans on what it describes as “controversial” hunting and trapping activities on Alaska’s federal preserves, including luring bears with bait, shooting swimming caribou or killing wolf pups in their dens.

The agency, saying the activities do not meet traditional notions of sport hunting, is also proposing to ban predator reduction efforts on its preserves, according to an eight-page notice of the proposed rules published Monday in the Federal Register.

The publication launches a two-month public comment period ending March 10.

The Biden administration’s proposal marks the third time in eight years the federal government has visited the subject of hunting and trapping in Alaska’s federal preserves. If enacted, the current proposal would reinstate Obama-era rules authorized in 2015 and reversed in 2020 under the Trump administration.

The state of Alaska and a hunting guide group expressed opposition to the proposal, saying it would erode the state’s ability to manage wildlife and could jeopardize some efforts that reduce predator numbers.

Conservation groups praised the plan, saying it will stop inhumane hunts in preserves, increase tourism by protecting wildlife and improve visitor safety by reducing the potential for encounters between bears and people.

The National Park Service said in a statement last week that the proposal, if enacted, will “properly reflect the federal government’s authority to regulate hunting and trapping” on national preserves in the state.

ADVERTISEMENT

“This proposed rule would realign our efforts to better manage national preserve lands in Alaska for natural processes, as well as address public safety concerns associated with bear baiting,” said Sarah Creachbaum, Alaska regional director for the National Park Service.

But state wildlife officials say the federal government’s contention is wrong: If the Park Service regulates hunting and trapping on federal preserves, that cuts into the state’s statutory responsibilities.

Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Game, said in an interview that the proposed change will affect Alaska’s right under federal law to manage hunting and fishing in the state, including on federal lands.

“In my initial read of this, this raises some significant issues regarding the ability of the state to manage fish and wildlife on federal lands, which was guaranteed to us at statehood and under” federal law, Vincent-Lang said.

“I’m guessing that if this survives the rule-making process it will go to court and (we’ll) defend our authority to manage fish and wildlife on federal lands,” he said.

Vincent-Lang said the state is disappointed that the Park Service has already been consulting with tribal organizations and Alaska Native corporations, but did not reach out to the state.

In a two-page letter to National Park Service Director Charles F. Sams III on Wednesday, Vincent-Lang said the Park Service is legally required to consult with the state on the proposed rule. He asked the director to rescind publication of the proposed rule and delay public comment until Alaska Fish and Game receives the same level of consultation that the tribes and Native corporations have received.

‘Sport’ hunting, not subsistence

The National Park Service notice said that in addition to prohibiting predator control on preserves, the proposed rules would ban practices that are “not consistent with generally accepted notions of ‘sport’ hunting.”

They would prevent the taking of:

• Black bears, including cubs and sows with cubs, with artificial light at den sites.

• Black bears and brown bears using bait.

• Wolves and coyotes, including pups, during the denning season.

• Swimming caribou.

• Caribou from traveling motorboats.

The proposed changes would not affect federal subsistence harvests in national parks and preserves, the agency said.

“This affects sport hunting only,” said Peter Christian, a spokesman in Alaska with the National Park Service. It also does not apply to national parks, where sport hunting is already banned.

The agency manages 10 preserves in Alaska totaling 22 million acres, including at Denali National Park and Preserve, where the preserve lies west of the park.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Park Service believes the hunting and trapping practices allowed in 2020 have occurred only in limited circumstances, Christian said. They’re only allowed in the preserves after authorization by the state, he said.

But now the Park Service has determined that the “factual, legal and policy conclusions that underlie the (2020) rule are incorrect,” he said.

The proposal also represents a significant shift from the Trump administration’s rule change when it comes to bear baiting.

In its proposed rule, the Park Service says it didn’t fully consider expert input in 2020 when it determined bear baiting was justified in preserves.

For this rule-making, however, officials interviewed numerous national park resource managers and wildlife biologists in Alaska who said bear baiting will alter the animals’ behavior, increase the likelihood of bear kills in defense of life and property, and create “moderate to high” risks for the visiting public of injury or perhaps death in a bear encounter, according to the Federal Register filing.

The National Park Service now says bears can become habituated to human food used in baiting, and says bears are more likely to attack when defending a food source.

The agency points out that steps the state has taken to mitigate human-bear encounters around bear baiting, such as outlawing stations within a quarter-mile of a trail or road, don’t adequately reduce risks because bears range widely, and hunters transporting food to a station may use the same path, road or waterway as other park visitors.

The 2020 rule was largely opposed by members of the public who commented, the agency says. More than 99% percent of more than 200,000 public comments opposed the 2020 rule.

ADVERTISEMENT

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in September found that the 2020 rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act. But she did not set aside the rule, noting that the National Park Service was already reassessing it.

Wildlife management, wildlife values

Thor Stacey, director of governmental affairs for the Alaska Professional Hunters Association, which represents many hunting guides in Alaska, said the group opposes the proposed rule.

In particular, it could harm rural residents who rely primarily on caribou, moose and other wild animals for most of their diet, Stacey said.

The proposed rule will prevent the state from allowing hunts for predators such as bears, even if the hunt is not a predator-control action by the state, he said. That could result in, say, reduced moose populations, a key problem in areas with limited access to store-bought food.

“If the state can’t manage wildlife effectively, which includes hunts for bears and wolves, you really don’t have wildlife management anymore because you can’t have a predator season anymore if it has any kind of benefit to a prey species,” Stacey said.

But Nicole Schmitt, executive director of Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the lead plaintiff in the case against the 2020 rules, said the group is “excited” about the ban.

Bear baiting can involve the use of human foods, such as doughnuts or bacon grease, creating potential safety issues for preserve visitors if bears connect humans with those foods, she said.

“We fundamentally believe these practices should not be allowed and are not lawful on preserve lands for sport hunting,” she said. “Allowing sport hunting for bears while hibernating and wolves while denning is problematic.”

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments in a letter from Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang to the head of the National Park Service.]

• • •

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

Sponsored