Federal wildlife refuges are not up for grabs

Alaska’s attempt to intrude on federal wildlife refuges has incensed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for good reason.


Among the many talents of Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are statesmanship and restraint. It’s hard to tell when he’s angry. But when we talked in March, he was seething.

The source of his ire: Wildlife managers in some states are seeking to oust federal management and take control themselves. Inciting the rebellion is Alaska.

Alaska kills off wolves, grizzlies and black bears in a vain attempt to convert the state to an ever-expanding Stop-and-Shop for moose and caribou hunters. It has directed managers to gun down wolves and all bears from helicopters, and to gas wolf pups in dens. It has authorized private citizens to shoot wolves from airplanes, to hunt and trap wolves when pelts are worthless and pups helpless, and to bait, trap and snare grizzlies. It has allowed hunters to fly into grizzly and black bear habitat and shoot them the same day and to sell the body parts of black bears.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service usually allows states to regulate hunting on national wildlife refuges, though it doesn’t have to. The agency tried to work things out with the Alaska Board of Game. But when the grizzly slaughter on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge threatened survival of the population, the refuge closed grizzly hunting. Alaska’s game board responded by escalating, where possible, its war on predators.

Skilak Glacier and Glacial Lake, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
Steve Hillebrand/CC Wikimedia Commons

So the Wildlife Service proposed a rule restricting the state’s more destructive predator-control measures on national wildlife refuges. In response, Alaska’s predator controllers have taken their case to the Association of (state) Fish and Wildlife Agencies, whipping members into a froth of paranoia about imagined federal overreach.

The state association’s mission is to advance scientific wildlife management in partnership with federal agencies. Instead, it and organizations supposedly representing sportsmen have been sounding like the Bundy militia.

In a Feb. 19 letter to the Wildlife Service’s Ashe, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Rifle Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation and Wildlife Management Institute, wrote, “A national application of this rule would universally derogate state fish and wildlife agency authority to manage fish and wildlife on national wildlife refuges.” As if Ashe were considering a national application, and as if states ever had such authority.

Gary Taylor, legislative director emeritus of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, has warned members that the rule “would promulgate into regulation the Fish and Wildlife Service Policy on biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health.” As if this were somehow contrary to sportsmen’s interests.

And the association’s current director, Ron Regan, complained to the U.S. Senate that “the rule would usurp Alaska’s authority to manage fish and wildlife for sustained yield” on national wildlife refuges. As if there were anything to “usurp,” and as if Alaska manages predators sustainably.

The courts are clear on who tends national wildlife refuges. When Wyoming wanted to vaccinate elk for brucellosis on the National Elk Refuge, the Wildlife Service said no. Wyoming sued and lost. When Alaska wanted to fly into wilderness to kill the wolves of Unimak Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Wildlife Service said no. Alaska sued and lost.

Courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Ashe told me this: “In considering our proposed Alaska rule, I’m asking calmer minds to consider a few hypothetical questions.

“Is it not at least conceivable that the (Fish and Wildlife) Service and the National Park Service (which has proposed a similar Alaska rule) are acting in response to provocation by the Alaska Board of Game? Is it not possible that it was politically motivated and unilateral action by the Alaska Board of Game that disrupted a decades-long and highly successful partnership in cooperative management in Alaska?

“Perhaps … one might want to hear other opinions, like those of Dr. Vic Van Ballenberghe, a wildlife biologist and former Alaska Board of Game member, who says, ‘State efforts to apply the extreme predator reduction measures to national wildlife refuge lands might well be called state overreach.’ Or maybe the views of former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who calls the new predator management practices ‘unscientific and unethical.’”

Why the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and some of its allies feel constrained to defend Alaska’s 1920s-style jihad against predators on federal lands is puzzling and distressing. 

In the words of ecologist-philosopher Aldo Leopold, “Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: It was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth.” The Alaska Board of Game shares this biblical land ethic. What it hasn’t figured out is that killing off predators in a reckless and bloody war will never create a hunters’ paradise.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a freelance writer and former employee of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

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