Park service moves to block predator control on federal land in Alaska

A long-running disagreement between the state of Alaska and the National Park Service over how to manage wolves and bears is continuing with the federal agency moving to permanently block predator-control efforts on the millions of acres of land it controls in the state.

The park service said Thursday it is proposing a permanent ban on "three historically illegal predator hunting practices in Alaska's national preserves.''

Preserves are part of the park system in Alaska generally open to hunting. The preserves were created in a compromise that led to passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act in 1980. The act more than doubled the size of the national park system. More than 20 million acres went into preserves.

The state was to maintain management over wildlife on those lands, but things quickly got complicated because the act also created a special class of Americans -- rural Alaska residents -- unique to the 49th state and given special hunting privileges on federal lands.

When the state balked at granting such privileges to Alaska hunters and fishermen based solely on where they lived, the feds stepped in and began their own management programs on federal lands, which comprise about two-thirds of the state.

Wolves, grizzly bears, black bears

The situation has only grown more complicated over the years, with the feds and the state often at odds over how to manage wildlife. The latest move by the park service outlaws:

• Shooting wolves and coyotes, or their pups, in early summer when the pelts have no commercial value;


• Shooting grizzly bears over bait;

• Using artificial light – "shining," as it is called in some states – to hunt black bears, or killing black bear sows and cubs in their dens.

The Alaska Board of Game has in recent years allowed all of those practices in some areas of the state in an effort to reduce the number of wolves, coyotes and bears preying on moose, caribou and Dall sheep. State wildlife biologists point to a variety of studies that show predation can significantly reduce the populations of prey animals in Alaska.

The state has tried to maximize prey numbers while keeping predator numbers relatively high.

Park officials argue for letting nature take its course, even if that means periods when both predators and prey are scarce.

Teddy Roosevelt ethics

Each side in the argument thinks its view is the healthier and more intelligent approach.

And the park service doesn't like the way some of the state hunts look. Killing young animals and using what are considered by some to be "unfair'' hunting tactics run counter to decades of hunting ethics created and fostered by former President Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909, and the Boone & Crockett Club, a conservation group that spawned so-called "trophy hunting'' to encourage hunters to kill only the oldest and biggest animals.

Roosevelt was the president who brought America the teddy bear.' He was hunting in Mississippi in 1902, according to a park service history, when assistants "cornered and tied a black bear to a willow tree. They summoned Roosevelt and suggested that he shoot it. Viewing this as extremely unsportsmanlike, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. News of this event spread quickly through newspaper articles across the country. The articles recounted the story of the president who refused to shoot a bear. However, it was not just any president, it was Theodore Roosevelt, the big game hunter.''

A cartoonist for the Washington Post lampooned Roosevelt for his failure to shoot the bear, but that backfired when a manufacturer of stuffed toys decided to produce a bear -- Teddy's Bear -- honoring the president's actions. Thus was born the teddy bear.

It's easy to understand how an agency with this history would have trouble with the state allowing baby bears to be killed, though park service Alaska regional director Bert Frost tried to couch the agency's latest action in terms of simply codifying "long-standing prohibitions for wildlife harvest seasons and methods that were traditionally illegal under state law, but in recent years have been authorized by the State of Alaska in an effort to drive down predator populations and boost game species.''

Manipulating natural population dynamics conflicts with National Park Service law and policy, the press release added.

"This rule does nothing to restrict or limit federal subsistence hunting on NPS-managed lands," the park service noted. "It would make permanent the small number of temporary restrictions we have put in place annually for the past four years, and largely maintain the status quo."

Subsistence hunting is the hunting done by rural residents. They can hunt in both preserves and parks. Other Alaska hunters wishing to hunt on federal land, along with sport hunters from outside Alaska, are allowed only in preserves, which make up about 38 percent of the 54 million acres of land managed by the park service in Alaska. Preserve hunting generally occurs under state regulations, and most of those regulations would remain unchanged under the park service plan.

'A bold move'

The park service has already closed parks and preserves to targeted predator control actions, such as aerial shooting of wolves, conducted by the state as part of its wildlife management program.

The newest park service plan to protect predators was immediately embraced by the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group, which called the proposal "a bold move.''

"At issue isn't whether you can hunt in Alaska's national preserves, but how you hunt,'' Jim Stratton, the organization's deputy vice president for regional operations, said in a press release. "Most notably, we are pleased to see the National Park Service proposing to ban such unbearable hunting methods as spotlighting, which involves shining a light on bears in their dens in order to shoot them.''

The press release went on to outline the difficulties the park service and state have had in working together, observing that park "policies clearly state that any action that manipulates one wildlife population to benefit a hunted species, such as the state of Alaska's war on bears and wolves in order to grow more moose and caribou, is not allowed.


"The park service has regularly identified state hunting regulations that conflict with how it manages wildlife, and has repeatedly submitted requests for the Alaska Board of Game to either change the rules or exempt NPS lands. Since 2000, (the National Parks Conservation Association) has documented more than 60 times where the state has rejected reasonable requests and adopted hunting regulations that conflict with the National Park Service wildlife management mandates, which provides for natural and healthy wildlife populations on park service lands."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.