U.S. Supreme Court lets stand a ban on baiting of brown bears in Alaska’s Kenai refuge

a brown bear
A brown bear cub looks for fish in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s Kenai River on Aug. 14, 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday announced it will not consider an appeal seeking to overturn the ban on brown bear baiting in the Kenai Refuge. (Photo by Lisa Hupp/U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a state attempt to overturn the federal ban on bait-assisted hunting of brown bears in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal, made jointly by the state and by Safari Club International, keeps the ban in place in the 1.9-million-acre refuge. It also upholds a rule put in place in 2016 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and affirmed by a U.S. District Court judge in 2020 and by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022.

Environmental organizations supporting the rule welcomed Monday’s announcement putting the matter to rest.

“We celebrate the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up this appeal, along with the affirmation of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s authority to manage wildlife refuges to protect wildlife diversity and ensure that the Refuge supports a variety of visitor experiences, including wildlife viewing,” Rachel Briggs, staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, said in a statement. “The ruling means that the Kenai Refuge will continue to function as a true refuge for vulnerable Kenai brown bears and other species.”

“Bear baiting allows hunters to use donuts, dog food, bacon grease or other foods to attract bears, making it much easier to shoot bears. When the state of Alaska first authorized brown bear baiting on Kenai Peninsula state lands, human-caused bear mortality rose six-fold, causing a significant decline in this isolated population and prompting emergency closures of bear hunting in the refuge. With this prohibition, the Fish and Wildlife Service can better ensure the sustainability of Kenai brown bears, fulfilling its responsibility to conserve biological integrity and diversity on our refuge lands,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in the statement.

the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Fall foliage is seen on Sept. 14, 2017, along the Kenai River in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has been at the center of a state-federal debate over baiting of brown bears. (Photo by Lisa Hupp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Alaska Department of Law, however, considers the Kenai refuge prohibition part of a larger pattern of federal infringement on the state’s rights, including rights under the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, a spokesperson said.

“While the Ninth Circuit’s decision is only about brown bear baiting within the Kenai Refuge, the larger issue is the scope of the federal government’s authority on public lands,” department spokesperson Patty Sullivan said by email. “When Alaska became a State, Congress gave the State the authority to manage wildlife and hunting throughout Alaska, including on federal lands. When Congress passed ANILCA, it preserved—rather than displaced—local control over how hunting will occur in Alaska. The Ninth Circuit chiseled away some of the authority Congress meant to preserve for the State. It remains unclear whether, in a future case, the Ninth Circuit will further shift the delicate balance between state and federal power. The State will continue to defend Alaska’s management rights going forward and limit the reach of this unfortunate decision.”

Baiting of brown bears has never been allowed in the refuge, located south of Anchorage, since its formal creation in 1980, but the Alaska Board of Game has tried to change that. Disputes with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the subject go back several years.

In 2013, the Board of Game passed a rule allowing brown bear baiting in the refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service followed up with the 2016 rule formalizing its ban. The state and Safari Club sued to overturn the rule, and in 2020 the Trump administration proposed a rule removing the Kenai refuge restriction. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled later in 2020 in favor of the bear-baiting ban, negating the Trump administration’s attempted change, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 upheld Gleason’s ruling.

The Supreme Court’s denial of the appeal comes as the National Park Service is considering a separate rule that would end what it called “controversial” hunting practices and largely revert sport hunting rules on Alaska’s national preserves to the status prior to a separate 2020 Trump administration rule aimed at loosening those restrictions.

The Park Service rule, proposed in January and currently in the public-comment phase, would restore the ban on bear baiting in national preserves, along with the ban on killing of denning wolf pups, the ban on the hunting of swimming caribou and other provisions. Those bans and restrictions would not affect subsistence hunters, as was the case with the system in place earlier.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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