Fish and Wildlife consider ban on predator hunting in refuge lands

The National Park Service implemented a series of changes at the beginning of this year which ban various types of predator hunting on Park Service land.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering similar changes for refuge lands across Alaska.

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(Photo courtesy of ADFG)
(Photo courtesy of ADFG)

The agencies say the changes are necessary to better align hunting regulations with federal management objectives.  Hunters have countered that there is no biological justification for the restrictions, and that the changes are purely political.

Based on the fate of a proposal that passed the Federal Subsistence Board this month, some of the opponents may have found a way to overturn the predator hunting changes in specific areas.

It’s a complicated regulatory situation.  But basically, the new regulations would prevent subsistence users and sport hunters alike from doing certain kinds of hunting on federal land – things such as taking a brown bear over bait.

The fact that subsistence hunters would be affected by the changes is not immediately obvious, because the changes purportedly apply only to what the agencies call “non-subsistence take.”  But what the agencies are referring to with this label is hunting that happens on refuges, parks, or preserves under state regulations where is no specific, federal subsistence hunting season to authorize the hunt.

The new federal predator hunting regulations indicate that the state regs can no longer become the default in this way, when it comes to what the federal agencies call “highly efficient methods and means” for hunting bears, wolves, and coyotes.

But what if there is a federally-authorized subsistence predator hunt in a certain area, as approved by the Federal Subsistence Board?  Then the new regulations wouldn’t apply – at least for subsistence hunters.

Quite by accident, a proposal from Game Management Units 11 and 12 tested that supposition earlier this month at the Federal Subsistence Board meeting in Anchorage.

Submitted by the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Subsistence Resource Commission, the proposal would allow federally-qualified subsistence users in the communities surrounding the Park and Preserve to hunt brown bears over bait in April, May and June on Park Service land.

Wrangell-St. Elias Subsistence Resource Commission member Gloria Stickwan says the proposal was never intended to be a push-back against the new predator hunting rules, but instead give area black bear hunters some protection.
“They incidentally took brown bears over black bear bait,” Stickwan said. “This just makes it more legal to brown bears over black bear bait.”
The Federal Subsistence Board passed the proposal, along with 33 others on its consent agenda, without a debate.   Commission Chairwoman Karen Linnell wasn’t surprised, even with all the controversy swirling around the issue.
“I think it was because the regional advisories committees were in support of it, and then that there really is not a conservation concern at this point,” said Linnell.

Given that local subsistence hunters account for only a fraction of the brown bear harvest in the Wrangell-St. Elias area, the biological impact of the proposal was found to be minimal.

Though the proposal itself didn’t cause much of a splash when it passed, its success is encouraging to Jack Reakoff, who sits on the commission that helps set subsistence policies for the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, in and around the Brooks Range.

“It gives an indication that the Park Service is willing to work with the subsistence users on methods and means, to the benefit of subsistence users,” Reakoff said.

Further proof of that, Reakoff says, is the proposal that came out of his region to allow the use of artificial light when hunting bears at den sites – another practice that is targeted for elimination, with numerous exceptions, under the new predator hunting restrictions.  But the Federal Subsistence Board passed that one as well.

Reakoff is also chairman of the Western Interior Federal Subsistence Regional Advisory Council, which encompasses millions of acres of Fish and Wildlife service-managed land.   If the proposed predator hunting restrictions go into effect on refuges later this year, Reakoff expects that the Western Interior Council will try to reinstate any number of subsistence predator hunts when the Federal Subsistence Board takes up game proposals again in 2018.

Based on what the Board did this month, Reakoff says that the path forward has become smoother.

“The reality is the rural residents can petition the Federal Subsistence Board to continue to allow the methods and means that the State has provided on the refuges,” said Reakoff.

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