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National Park Service proposes bear baiting ban in Alaska

Experts say bear baiting will increase the likelihood of defense of life and property kills of bears, and will alter the natural processes and behaviors of bears and other wildlife.

(CN) — Bear baiting may no longer be an option for Alaskan hunters, the National Park Service announced under a proposed rule filed Friday that would also prohibit predator control on national preserves.

The rule change ultimately represents a step back from the National Park Service’s adaptation of the “2020 rule,” which eliminated the Obama administration’s ban on bear baiting from 2016 and removed restrictions on practices like taking black bear cubs and sows with cubs — the latter of which was only allowed by qualified, local residents who recognized the custom as an uncommon but traditional practice by some native cultures in northern Alaska, the agency said.

Other practices that were initially banned or restricted by a 2015 rule and later opened in 2020 included taking wolves and coyotes during denning seasons, taking swimming caribou or caribou from motorboats under power and using dogs to hunt black bears.

The 2020 rule also removed a stipulation from the 2015 rule that state laws or management actions that have the potential to alter natural predator populations to increase the harvest of ungulates by humans are not allowed in national preserves in Alaska.

The park service received approximately 211,780 pieces of correspondence during the public comment period for the 2020 rule, with more than 99% of the public comments opposed to the 2020 rule, the agency wrote in its proposal.

By prohibiting bear baiting in national preserves — which hunters typically do with processed foods like bread, pastries, dog food and bacon grease — the park service says it would lower the risk of bears of associating food at bait stations with humans and conditioning bears to eating human food, “thereby creating a public safety concern.”

“This proposal would also lower the probability of visitors encountering a bait station where bears may attack to defend a good source,” the park service said.

When the park service passed the 2020 rule, the agency determined there was a “lack of conclusive evidence” that bear baiting posed safety concerns and it continues to say that there is still a lack of peer-reviewed data. However, the park service now says the 2020 rule did not fully consider the “vast experience and knowledge of recognized experts and professional resource managers,” such as 14 of the agency’s resource managers and wildlife biologists from 12 different Alaskan National Park System units.

“These technical experts’ unanimous opinion was that bear baiting will increase the likelihood of defense of life and property kills of bears and will alter the natural processes and behaviors of bears and other wildlife,” the park service wrote. “Considering the potential for significant human injury or even death, these experts considered the overall risk of bear baiting to the visiting public to be moderate to high.”

More recently, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason found issue with the 2020 rule after a coalition of conservation and animal rights groups sued the park service and the Department of the Interior for its rule change. Yet, instead of barring the practice of bear baiting altogether — which the judge noted the state’s regulations around were “arbitrary and capricious” — Gleason instead remanded the matter back to the park service without vacatur.

A government appeal remains pending.

“We are relieved to see the new rule. It remedies the unlawful practices in the 2020 rule and provides clarity around these lands while protecting federal subsistence,” said Nicole Schmitt, Executive Director of Alaska Wildlife Alliance, of the Park Service’s proposed rule in an email to CNS.

Alaska Wildlife Alliance is one of many conservation groups who sued the National Park Service for its 2020 rule change.

“This rule is very similar to the one promulgated in 2015, and I think it's important to remember why the 2015 rule came into being in the first place,” Schmitt wrote in an email, explaining that at the time of the 2015 rule, the park service noticed the state dramatically liberalized the methods allowed to hunt predators, such as increased season lengths, bear baiting and the removal of salvage requirements.

“Over the course of ten years, NPS objected to over 50 state proposals intended to enact these unofficial predator control practices in several national preserves. At one board of game meetings, the BOG chairman suggested that if NPS sought to prohibit these hunting practices in national preserves, NPS would have to pass federal rules to that effect,” Schmitt wrote. “In response, and to deliver clarity, NPS promulgated the 2015 rule to prohibit liberalized predator hunting practices in national preserves. The conditions that gave rise to the 2015 rule have not changed — the state continues to liberalize methods, means, and seasons for hunting wolves and bears.”

Schmitt added: “Such ‘sporting’ practices are inherently contradictory to the management priorities and purposes of national preserves. This rule is legally supported, provides clarity, maintains predator-prey relationships, and protects federal subsistence priority. It's really important that folks understand that this rule only restricts sport hunting, it does not limit federal subsistence.”

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