Interior is undoing a legacy of national park stewardship in Alaska

Unethical killing of bears and wolves is not responsible wildlife management.


Allowing unethical and unscientific predator control practices on National Park Service lands in Alaska, as Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke is currently proposing to do, is contrary to federal law and the interest of all Americans.

For 44 years, the state of Alaska and the National Park Service had a mutually agreed upon arrangement for managing wildlife on federal conservation lands. The agreement was enshrined in the federal laws of the Alaska Statehood Act, the National Park Service Organic Act and the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, and, in practice and in law, it spanned many state and federal administrations. Its specific purpose was to protect and conserve the “natural diversity” of the treasured wildlife of Alaska’s national parks.

The Interior Department has proposed wildlife management changes that would allow more killing of predators, including bears, on National Park Service lands in Alaska.

Now, the Trump administration’s Interior secretary is attempting to dismiss the fundamental rules of stewardship established by the National Park Service. The National Park Service regulations currently prohibit predator control — selective killing of bears, wolves, and other predators — and unscientific and inhumane killing methods. Zinke is attempting to rescind these regulations. This is being done with no legal and scientific basis, minimal stakeholder involvement, and a hasty public process. One hundred and eight scientists, current and retired wildlife and resource managers, and many of the nation’s large carnivore experts, most with extensive experience in Alaska, have joined in sending a letter to Zinke adamantly opposing his action.

A brief historical perspective can help shed some light on why this purely political and shortsighted maneuver is problematic.

Passage of the Alaska Statehood Act in 1959 gave Alaska control over fish and wildlife resources within the state, with the exception of those on federal lands “withdrawn or otherwise set apart as refuges or reservations for the protection of wildlife.” For 21 years, Alaska managed wildlife in its national parks and wildlife refuges according to federal wildlife and habitat regulations.

In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act added 43 million acres to the national park system in Alaska. Over 20 million acres of this addition were designated national preserves, places where subsistence and sport hunting are permitted. Still, that same law specifically mandates that fish and wildlife in those areas be managed “to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity” — in other words, to sustain all species, and no predator control.

Then-Gov. Jay Hammond negotiated the state’s interest in fish and wildlife management on the new lands with an agreement in 1980 stating that, “The (Alaska) Department of Fish and Game agrees to manage fish and resident wildlife populations in their natural species diversity on Service lands, recognizing that nonconsumptive use and appreciation by the visiting public is a primary consideration.”

Then, in 2003, after 23 years of cooperation, a new state administration, led by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, unfortunately attempted to apply predator control policies to the national preserves. After numerous unsuccessful consultations with the state, National Park Service managers began a multiyear public process to permanently resolve the issue. In that process, the agency received more that 70,000 comments and held over 25 public hearings in Alaska, the sentiment at each of which was overwhelmingly against predator control.

In 2015, the Park Service adopted regulations prohibiting any predator control program on its lands based on the legal requirements of federal law regarding these lands. Additionally, the regulations prohibited the harvesting practices used by the state historically considered unethical and unscientific, including taking any bear, cubs, and sows with cubs using artificial light at den sites; taking cub bears or female bears with cubs; taking brown bears and black bears over bait; taking wolves and coyotes during the denning season; and using dogs to hunt black bears.

Dropping those regulations would be a matter of national significance: Today, more than 85 percent of the nation’s national preserves are found in Alaska. Furthermore, the state is home to 98 percent of America’s brown bears, more than 90 percent of its wolverines and lynx, and about two-thirds of its wolves. More than 2.5 million people come to Alaska’s national parks each year to see the wild animals that live there. To many millions more, the natural ecosystems and wildlife in Alaska — unmatched in size and abundance — are a national treasure for this and all future generations.  

To dramatically lower the natural diversity of bears and wolves and to allow unethical methods of hunting them, including bear baiting, spotlighting bears in dens, killing sows and cubs, killing packs of wolves from airplanes and killing denning wolves and pups will — and should — outrage the American public. There is no legitimate purpose that justifies this nonsensical decimation of our national park wildlife.

It will be a sad day for America if the Department of Interior — ignoring the best interest of the public — is allowed to rescind responsible National Park Service wildlife regulations.

The public has until Nov. 5 to comment on the proposed deletion of the current wildlife regulations on our national park lands. In the brief time period that is left, please speak up to help protect our unique wildlife and the lands on which they live.

Tony Knowles served as the governor of Alaska from 1994 to 2002 and as the chair of the National Parks Advisory Board from 2010 to 2018.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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