Tuesday, June 6, 2017
By Mark Carter
In Alaska, hunters are at the center of continuing debates over local control of public lands and predator-control methods.
The state legislature, currently in special session, is considering a bill that would petition Congress, essentially, to hand over all public lands to the state. HJR 25 by Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) would "recognize the State of Alaska’s constitutional right to maintain ownership over all land, water, assets, resources, and activities within the state’s boundaries."
While organizations representing hunters and sportsmen are calling it a threat to hunting on public lands, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership takes a long view and declares the West won, for now, in the ongoing battle against legislation to transfer public lands to states. In 2015, a total of 37 individual bills were proposed in 11 Western states with six bills in four states passed, TRCP reports.
And those six bills are simply symbolic as they would need complementary federal action to lead to any actual transfer of public land.
"In 2017, all of these state bills have died, an indication that state legislators understand land transfer is a toxic idea, having been bombarded by the sporting community and other constituents," writes Joel Webster for TRCP. "Though talk of transferring public lands continues, we’ll go ahead and say it: We’ve won in the West."
Meanwhile, the Trump administration's repeal of a 2016 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ruling that banned most predator-control practices on federal lands was welcomed in Alaska. More than 219,000 of the state's total 365 million acres are owned by the federal government, roughly 60 percent, according to the National Wilderness Institute. National wildlife refuges make up 75.2 million acres in Alaska.
Predator-control methods used in Alaska include aerial hunting from helicopters and killing animals in their dens, practices that raise the ire of anti-hunting groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S., but also concern many traditional hunters and sportsmen's groups who consider the methods at odds with the ideal of fair chase.
Public land in Alaska: Mount Sukakpak, Dalton Highway corridor, north of Fairbanks. Much of the Dalton Highway corridor is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. (BLM)
The practices were put in place to control the populations of predators -- bears and wolves -- that feed on moose and caribou, coveted targets of Alaska hunters.
While many of the controversial practices under fire already were illegal for sport hunters under Alaska law, and some of them even allowed to substinence hunters under federal law, the issue comes down to local control. Just who should dictate which practices will be allowed on national wildlife refuges within a state's borders?
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which represents state agencies in the U.S. and their counterparts in Canada, supports continued cooperation between state and federal wildlife officials on NWRs, but opposed the 2016 rule that banned non-substinence, predator-control hunting.
It viewed the 2016 rule as an overstep, saying it pre-empted the authority of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to manage wildlife on NWRs in the state, which the agency traditionally has done without federal intervention.
"The state fish and wildlife agencies and the Association have a long history of cooperation with the USFWS that has resulted in many conservation successes. The states and the Association look forward in this Administration to restoring what we had enjoyed prior to the issue of this USFWS final rule, and that is a good, cooperative working relationship with the USFWS that respects authorities and delivers conservation successes on the ground for our citizens.
Geoff Haskett, acting president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and a former regional director for Alaska, told America Hunt that he too wants state and federal officials to continue working together to manage wildlife on NWRs, but insists that the federal government has ultimate authority on federal land. His organization opposed HJR 69 on legal grounds.
"The service has clear authority to regulate wildlife on federal lands," he said. "There is a huge body of litigation over the years that makes this very clear. Again though, the intent is to defer [to state officials] unless specific practices not allowed by congressionally delegated authorities and mandates occur."
A Kodiak bear in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (Yathin S. Krishnappa)
Haskett is disappointed that Congress chose to use the Congressional Review Act to implement the repeal. The act, passed in 1996, empowers Congress to expedite reviews of new federal regulations and overrule them through joint resolution, and also prohibits the reissuance of the rule unless a new law is enacted after the date of the repeal.
"The intent of the rule was to clearly put in to regulation existing authorities to get away from year-to-year litigation when the [Fish & Wildlife] service was forced to say no to unlawful proposals -- litigation that the service routinely won but was a waste of resources of people, time and money that could have been used instead for conservation purposes," he said.
Haskett said at least one group is considering a legal challenge to Trump's repeal. But whatever comes of any potential suit, or if a future Congress enacts another rule re-establishing federal authority, Haskett's group and others like it hope continued collaboration between state and federal officials is the rule of thumb on NWRs.
"We have always believed that the service needs to have a collaborative partnership with the state of Alaska, and every state across the nation," he said. "We believe the service prefers to defer to the state on hunting regulations on national wildlife refuges. The Alaska rule was only developed to target specific management practices proposed by the state that conflicted with existing federal policies, regulations and laws."
Regardless of who wields ultimate wildlife-management authority on NWRs, Charles Wohlforth at Alaska Dispatch News believes an independent, scientific study of Alaska's predator-control practices is necessary. He writes:
"Alaskans have warred over our peculiar institution of predator control for decades, but basic facts are missing. I'm not talking about the opinions of animal lovers who oppose all hunting. What they want and why is clear.
On the opposite side, there are hunters who never saw a wolf they didn't hate. Their point of view is just as emotional and values-based as the animal lovers'.
I don't agree with either side, nor do I discount their points of view. But there must be a middle ground for an Alaskan like me, and many others, to decide if what our state is doing makes sense."