Unethical hunting methods have no place in National Preserves – or anywhere else

Count me among the Alaskans who oppose a regulation change proposed by the National Park Service, which would authorize hunting methods on Alaska's national preserves that not so long ago would have been widely condemned as unsporting and unethical.

I wish I could say that most Alaskans oppose this regulation change. But it seems clear that nowadays most Alaskans are largely indifferent to our state's wildlife politics, especially the intensified campaign to "control" wolves and bears — that is, kill larger numbers of them — through both state-run predator control programs and ever-more-liberal hunting regulations.

And that's what this proposed change is: a political move pushed by the Trump administration in coordination with our state's Congressional delegation and state officials charged with managing Alaska's wildlife (or as they prefer to think of it, "wild game"). Their aim: to overturn federal regulations enacted in 2015 that prohibit certain state-sanctioned hunting practices from being conducted on national preserves managed by the National Park Service.

I would argue that the hunting practices in question should be prohibited everywhere in Alaska, because they violate any reasonable notion of "fair chase" practices. What sort of hunting methods are we talking about? The list is long and has steadily grown over the past 10 to 15 years: the shooting of black and brown bears (or grizzlies) over bait; the sale of some bear parts (skulls, hide, claws); the killing of black bear females with cubs and even the cubs themselves; the shooting of bears within dens, using artificial lights; the shooting of wolf and coyote pups (and of course their parents) during the denning season, even within dens; and the use of snowmachines to "position" wolves and wolverines for easier killing, essentially overturning the long-time ban on herding and harassment of wildlife, whether for hunting or other purposes.

I remember the initial shock and uproar when Board of Game members first suggested the possibility of killing bear cubs and their mothers, in a part of Southcentral Alaska where black bears were deemed a threat to moose populations. But the board persisted and eventually overcame — or ignored — public opposition and passed regulations allowing that heinous practice, just as it has allowed other hunting practices once considered repugnant and unacceptable. Instead of embracing more enlightened, progressive wildlife management, our state has regressed, badly.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotton has argued that some of these methods, for instance the killing of bears in dens, is permitted only in limited areas where the practice is considered a "customary and traditional" subsistence method. Yet it's allowed in general hunting regulations, not limited to subsistence. The message has been that all of these practices are now available to the general hunting public.

The sad fact is the state now allows a variety of hunting practices that most people — and most hunters — would consider unethical by modern standards. And it has done so with the complicity of all those Alaskans who haven't protested this step-by-step escalating war on predators.


Some may bristle at my use of "war," but it's in war that almost anything goes to defeat the enemy and normal ethical standards are set aside, correct? And that's the place we seem to have reached, or returned to, in Alaska when it comes to the hunting of wolves and bears, viewed by some — unfortunately including state wildlife officials and managers — as undesirable competitors for moose, caribou, and Dall sheep.

Yet even if such methods are, regrettably, allowed on state lands, there's good reason they should be banned within national preserves, because those lands and waters are managed differently, with an emphasis on maintaining natural and healthy populations of all wildlife species, within intact ecosystems. There should not be any "favored species" management in such places, nor extreme methods intended to diminish wolf and bear populations, which is why the NPS, after years of trying to work with the state, enacted its 2015 regulations.

The Park Service regulations made good sense then; they make better sense now. This proposed regulation change isn't about "correcting" federal over-reach, it's a power grab, enabled by our state's politicians and political appointees, to expand Alaska's egregious hunting regulations beyond state lands to federal lands where all wildlife are treated with greater respect and hunters are bound by ethical standards the state has tossed away.

I fear the regulation change is a done deal, no matter how strong the opposition. But I encourage Alaskans to speak out, to say what the state is doing isn't right and as a starter it shouldn't be allowed on national preserve lands. That would be a good start, to correct a wildlife-management system gone badly wrong.

Originally scheduled to end July 23, the comment period has been extended 45 days, to early September. Comments can be submitted in writing to the National Park Service's Alaska Regional Office, Attention NPS Regulations, 240 W. Fifth Ave., Anchorage, 99501. For online information about the proposed regulation change and instructions on how to comment online, go to www.regulations.gov and search for RIN 104-AE38. Or check on the Park Service's Alaska site. If you want to ask for help, or seek an explanation for this craziness, consider calling the NPS Alaska region's Public Affairs office, 907-644-3512.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."