Sweeping new rule for Alaska’s predator control

Federal versus state wildlife politics get even hotter.

 

When Jim Stratton, deputy vice president for the National Parks Conservation Association, heard last week that the National Park Service had announced a sweeping new rule banning the manipulation of predators and prey in Alaska’s national preserves, his reaction was — to put it mildly — unfettered joy. “This is totally exciting news,” he says. “I’ve only been working this for ten years. Game on.”

The reaction of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation? A little more tepid. Director Doug Vincent-Lang sees any attempt by the feds to usurp Alaska’s wildlife management authority as overreach, and this new rule — which maintains hunting rights on Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves but bans certain controversial practices — is overreach at its worst: “unfounded and unjust,” he told Alaska Dispatch News.

The proposed rule is currently up for public comments, and will likely be implemented next year. It prohibits the baiting of brown bears, the killing of wolves and coyotes when pups are in tow, and the use of artificial light to kill black bears in their dens. It also pre-emptively prohibits any other practice “with the intent or potential to alter or manipulate natural predator-prey dynamics.” In other words, killing predators to boost ungulate populations will no longer be allowed in Alaska’s national preserves. 

To understand just how big this is, it helps to backtrack to 2002, when former Republican governor Frank Murkowski took office. One of Murkowski’s first actions was to remove five of seven members of the Board of Game — the body responsible for most wildlife decisions — and replace them with new appointees more supportive of “intensive management:” reducing predator populations to bolster the moose and caribou that many Alaskans depend on for food. Almost overnight, the state went from non-lethal management to gunning down wolves from the air.

In the dozen years since, Alaska’s predator control efforts have only intensified. In addition to allowing aerial shooting, the board eliminated a 122-square-mile buffer protecting wolves around Denali National Park; allowed the baiting of brown bears, illegal since statehood; extended the wolf and coyote hunting season to months when the animals have pups (and their pelts are worthless); and approved “spotlighting,” or using artificial light to rouse hibernating black bears to shoot them as they emerge.

Many environmentalists dislike such practices, but they accept that Alaska has the right to do what it will on state land. Yet because Alaskan agencies manage wildlife on both state and federal land, the board also tried to implement such practices on Alaska’s national preserves, where hunting is allowed.

The issue drove a wedge between state wildlife agencies and the National Park Service. The Board of Game says it’s only adhering to a 1994 food security law; the Park Service maintains that manipulating the predator and prey dynamic is antithetical to their very existence: “We’re managing parks not as a game farm that produces high numbers of prey species, but as an ecosystem where you see natural gains and losses in predator and prey populations,” says spokesman John Quinley. “That’s based on (federal) law.”

Since 2001, the Park Service has asked the Board of Game roughly 60 times to exclude certain practices from national preserves, to no avail. So each year, the Park Service goes through the complex, costly process of individually overriding each of the state hunting regulations in each national preserve. Each year, public notices and meetings are held around the state. They’ve become so routine hardly anyone bothers to show up any more.

That’s about to change. The new rule will not only replace temporary, inefficient bans with a permanent, statewide ban, it’ll also enable the agency to opt out of any future hunting regulations that could inhibit natural diversity. “We don’t know what (the state) is going to come up with in the future,” says Stratton. “If they decide they want to allow brown bear baiting in some place where they don’t have it now, this gives the Park Service a way to push back.”

Yet though the proposed rule will help the Park Service maintain natural conditions on the land it manages, it won’t help predators that inadvertently wander beyond the agency’s invisible boundaries. In the past several years, the state has responded to feds’ temporary bans by dropping an agreement to spare wolves radio-collared for scientific research. Last year, roughly half of the wolf population of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve were shot from helicopters when they left park boundaries, including the entire Lost Creek pack, which had been studied by Park Service biologists for 20 years. 

Editor's note: For more on the new rule, check out Former governor Tony Knowles on Alaska's predator policies.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.