Don’t Tell Us How to Hunt, Alaska Tells Washington

Mother Kodiak bear leading two cubs out of cover into Dog Salmon Creek

ANCHORAGE (CN) — Alaska sued the United States for telling it how its subsistence hunters and trappers can hunt bear, caribou and wolves on its 100 million acres of federal land. “Alaskans depend on wildlife for food,” the state’s attorney general said, and Washington cannot “control Alaskans’ way of life and how Alaskans conduct their business.”

The lengthy federal lawsuit challenges Department of the Interior rules that ban several methods of killing and trapping wildlife, including bait, using dogs, from boats, and with artificial light. Alaska says the rules intrude on the jurisdiction of the Alaska Board of Fish and Game.

“Alaskans depend on wildlife for food,” Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in a statement. “These federal regulations are not about predator control or protecting the state’s wildlife numbers. These regulations are about the federal government trying to control Alaskans’ way of life and how Alaskans conduct their business. This is contrary to state and federal law.”

Lindemuth says in the Jan. 13 lawsuit that the Alaska Constitution and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act gives the state the right to manage wildlife and natural resources in its jurisdiction, including nearly 100 million acres of Alaska National Parks, Preserves and National Wildlife Refuges.

The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act created a class of Americans specific to Alaska, called “subsistence users:” members of Alaska Native tribes and rural residents who hunt to survive in remote areas, where grocery options are limited and shipping costs are high. Subsistence hunters are allowed to hunt on federal lands and are given more leeway in hunting methods and locations than sport hunters.

The co-defendant National Park Service in 2014 and 2015 prohibited taking wolves and coyotes, including pups during their denning season in national parks and preserves; taking black bears with artificial light at den sites; taking brown or black bears attracted to bait; using dogs in black bear hunts, and shooting swimming caribou or caribou emerging from the water on the shore while the hunter is in a moving boat.

In 2016, the defendant U.S. Fish and Wildlife prohibited using bait to kill bear cubs or sows with cubs or brown bears in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, using snares or traps on bears, killing wolves or coyote from May through Aug. 9 and taking bears from an aircraft the same day air travel has occurred.

Alaska and federal agencies clash frequently over land and wildlife, energy and the environment.

The defendant federal agencies seek to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the benefit of all American people, including Alaskans. They tend to let nature take its course and let bears, wolves and coyotes prey on caribou, moose and Dall sheep.

Alaska agencies favor targeted predator control, to boost consistent availability of game species for subsistence and to attract sport hunters whose travel and license fees are vital to Alaska’s economy.

The federal rules in question prohibit hunting methods that are considered unfair or unsporting even if that means less game for the taking some years and more in other. “Manipulating natural population dynamics conflicts with National Park Service law and policy,” the Park Service said about the updated rules in 2014. “This rule does nothing to restrict or limit federal subsistence hunting on NPS-managed lands. It would make permanent the small number of temporary restrictions we have put in place annually for the past four years, and largely maintain the status quo.”

Fish and Wildlife’s updated final rules attempted to align them with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe wrote in August last year that cooperation with states is the best approach, and that his agency has a long history of cooperation states, including Alaska. “But there comes a time when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must stand up for the authorities and principles that underpin our work and say, “‘No,’” Ashe wrote for the Huffington Post.

He said that the “carefully crafted regulations will ensure that all wildlife – including predators – gets a fair shake on Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges, for which Congress has assigned us primary authority. The State of Alaska’s predator control programs may be in line with its state mandates and programs, but they cannot be reconciled with the federal laws that guide us.”

Alaska asks the court to declare the rules in violation of state and federal laws, and wants them enjoined, so that state hunting laws are applied on federal land in Alaska. It also claims that “the federal agencies failed to rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives and failed to recognize that their action will significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

“As Alaskans, we have a unique relationship with our land – especially in the most rural parts of our state where residents rely on hunting and fishing to put food on the table,” Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement. “These regulations impact our basic means of survival. Alaskans must be able to provide for their families, and the rules that have been put forward by the federal government do not support that.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotton added: “There is no question that hunting is allowed on Alaska’s national preserves and wildlife refuges. To preserve the ability to hunt for future generations, state officials need the flexibility to manage wildlife populations. These regulations remove that flexibility.”

Ashe disagrees. “We do not take this action because we oppose Alaska’s strong hunting traditions,” he wrote. “To the contrary, our regulations are designed to protect and preserve ethical, sustainable hunting for generations to come.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director for the Alaska Region Greg Siekaniec told Courthouse News in an email Tuesday: “No action was taken beyond what is the responsibility of the Service in developing rules for Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. Subsistence and recreational hunting and fishing will continue to be an important use and activity on National Wildlife Refuges here in Alaska.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation.