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U.S. Senate votes to repeal wildlife refuge hunting rule for Alaska

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed legislation Tuesday to repeal a regulation governing hunting regulations on federal wildlife refuges in Alaska.

The Congressional Review Act bill to overturn the Obama administration regulation, having passed the House, and now the Senate by a vote of 52-47, now heads to President Donald Trump. The House passed the bill, introduced by Alaska Rep. Don Young, last month. Trump is expected to sign it into law.

The contested rule has evoked vivid imagery by its opponents in Congress: slaughtered wolf puppies, shooting wolves from planes, undercutting the natural order in Alaska's 76 million acres of wildlife refuges.

Alaska's lawmakers say that those arguments are simply untrue, and they miss the point.

Repealing the rule through a congressional resolution is important to the "principle of federalism," said Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan just before the vote Tuesday, chiding "senators from states that don't know anything about my state."

"This rule is about subsistence," Sullivan said.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said some of the rule's hunting provisions related to bears would impact subsistence hunting for people in remote areas of Alaska.

But the resolution's opponents say the lawmakers have it all wrong — that Alaska's game managers want to illegally control predators to boost the population of moose and caribou for hunters. Favoring one species over another is not allowed, argued Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, during an impassioned speech opposing the rule.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, standing on the Senate floor next to a photo of a mother bear and her cubs, argued that the game management regulation is "not a state or parochial issue," since 85 percent of the nation's federal wildlife refuges are in Alaska.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, called the bill "misguided," "unwise," "abhorrent" and "appalling" during a speech urging his colleagues to vote against repealing the Obama administration's regulation.

While Congress could repeal the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulation through the Congressional Review Act, which allows repeal of recent regulations, it has been too long since the National Park Service issued a similar rule to repeal that one.

At the heart of the disagreement between state and federal wildlife managers is what each group thinks should guide its purpose. The federal government has argued that the goal on refuges and in parks should be biodiversity. The state Board of Game has an interest in ensuring maximum sustained populations for hunting.

The state Game Board and the federal agencies have clashed over managing predators, which could drive down available game for subsistence hunters, as well as authority over managing the lands.

Both the state and federal agencies argue that it's the principle of the matter, and that right now the regulation wouldn't change a great deal in the management of federal wildlife refuges.

While "opponents will allege that the repeal of this rule will legalize brutal predator control practices … the Senate should know that it is already illegal for hunters to use certain practices — gas against wolves, traps to bears. You can't do this in national wildlife refuges in Alaska," Murkowski said.

Some rules have been liberalized in recent years — like allowing harvesting of brown bears at black bear bait stations, or taking wolves during denning season. But generally Fish and Wildlife says that game-hunting rules would not change much, since most of the practices listed in the rule are banned already. For instance, hunters not only can't shoot wolves from planes — they can't shoot a wolf on the same day that air traveled even occurred.

Murkowski argued Tuesday that the rule is not about "a specific hunting practice," but an attack on the state's right to oversee its refuge lands. Alaska and every other state has "primary authority to manage its fish and wildlife, including on federal refuge lands. So let's not get confused here and think that because you have federal lands that somehow or another states do not have" control, she said.

And in Alaska, "state management of fish and wildlife is practically sacrosanct," Murkowski said.

Sullivan noted that every state fish and wildlife agency and numerous hunting groups support the resolution to repeal the law.

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