Feds push back at Alaska game board over predator control

WASHINGTON -- Federal wildlife managers and the Alaska Board of Game are at odds again, this time over a proposed new rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would limit predator control in national wildlife refuges.

The draft rule, published in the Federal Register on Friday, aligns with a similar National Park Service rule that was finalized in October, banning practices like bear baiting, and would formally establish a goal of biodiversity as the guiding principle of federal management of wildlife refuges.

That stands in contrast to the goal of the Game Board, which is to ensure maximum sustained populations for hunting. And it extends the provisions over a far greater area than the Park Service rule, since there are nearly 77 million acres of wildlife refuges across the state.

Increasingly over the last decade, the Game Board and the federal agencies have clashed over managing predators, largely over the idea that the state manages for "abundance" of moose and caribou. Under state law, the Game Board focuses on sustaining populations of moose, caribou and deer for hunting and consumption.

State officials quickly responded with criticism of the federal proposal, saying the rule would eventually push people to hunt elsewhere, and could drive down options for subsistence hunters.

The state is "strongly opposed" to the proposed rule, and is joined by some nonprofits and Native groups, said Bruce Dale, head of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

Dale said the rule "takes away the state's management authority" and "would affect hunters of all types and possibly trappers." And, Dale argued, the rule is vaguely written in a way that would later allow a more dramatic and widespread interpretation that goes against the state's efforts to keep harvests high.


But for the immediate future, the rule wouldn't change much about how the Fish and Wildlife Service manages lands, the state and the federal agencies said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, says the rule makes clear it would have no impact on subsistence hunters.

The rule would "clarify existing legal mandates," said Heather Tonneson, a regional refuge ecologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service who was one of the rule's primary authors.

"As far as what changes, the underlying fact is that we're just clarifying our existing mandate. We're going to be managing refuges as we've always managed them," Tonneson said.

Traditionally, the Fish and Wildlife Service adopts state rules for hunting on national wildlife refuges, unless it issues regulations of its own that supersede those.

In most cases, the proposed rule is a "proactive move to make sure that (state hunting policy) doesn't get further liberalized," Tonneson said.

In recent years, the Game Board has allowed predator control in a way that could "disrupt natural processes and wildlife interactions," such as allowing harvesting of brown bears at black bear bait stations, taking wolves during denning season and classifying black bears as fur-bearers and big game species, "which could allow for trapping and snaring of bears and sale of their hides and skulls," the proposed rule said.

These recent actions liberalize the rules and loosen long-held hunting restrictions, the rule said.

The current regulations say the criteria for controlling federal refuges include public health and safety, resource protection, protection of cultural or scientific values, subsistence uses and endangered or threatened species conservation. The new regulation, if finalized, would add to that the "conservation of natural and biological diversity, biological integrity, and environmental health."

Predator control is not allowed on refuges in the state unless it meets the purposes of the federal government — so this policy would clarify a "new" purpose that federal government says is derived from its mission laid out in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says in the proposed rule that "big game hunting on refuges would change minimally," since most of the practices are banned already. Any change would be offset by "other sites (outside refuges) gaining participants," the agency said.

But the rule "disallows predator management ... to benefit human consumptive uses and provide food security," Dale said. In that sense, it could impact subsistence hunters who may be faced with a lower moose population, for example.

Some of those opposed to the regulations argue that the federal government is really going after hunting practices that it opposes on ethical terms, not scientific terms, such as certain practices surrounding hunting bears in dens, or using bait, and by shortening the season for taking wolves and coyotes in some areas.

Tonneson said ethics considerations are "not our reasoning for proposing to prohibit these things," and noted that for legal subsistence hunters, practices could continue. It's "not so much an ethics debate for us," but preventing the "cumulative impacts from opening that up to a wide range of people, including folks from the Lower 48."

But "I don't think there's going to be much change there, personally," Tonneson said.

Some of the practices listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service are already banned by the state, such as killing wolves or wolverines from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred.

And predator reduction on refuges hasn't been something the state or federal government has been doing for decades, noted Dale, the state official. So in many instances, there would be no change instigated by the new regulation.


"They're banning something that they already weren't allowing," Dale said.

Dale suggested there is a lot of pressure to control nonhuman predators in places where the moose population is low, so the new regulation would strengthen the Fish and Wildlife Service when it comes to refusing.

"I believe that their intent ... is to make it clear to everyone that this is not going to be allowed. I think that's probably the main thing," Dale said.

Tonneson noted the agency is "not done yet. It's a proposed rule" and the agency wants to hear from the public and is open to changes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comment on its proposed rule until March 7, though Alaska Gov. Bill Walker plans to ask the federal government to double the public comment period for the rule.

There will be nine public hearings. Comments can be submitted online through regulations.gov using docket number FWS-R7-NWRS-2014-0005, or by mail to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: [FWS-R7-NWRS-2014-0005]; Division of Policy, Performance, and Management Programs; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC; 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.