Environmental group sues over Alaska predator control rollback

Grizzly approaches fishing gear along the Kenai River. (Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

WOLF AND BEAR PROTECTIONS — STATE OR FEDERAL MANAGEMENT?

No sooner was the ink dry on House Joint Resolution 69, rolling back Obama-era prohibitions on predator control across Alaska’s federal lands, when the environmental groups had their lawsuit up and running.

Today, the Center for Biological Diversity filed that lawsuit in the District Court of Alaska in Anchorage, claiming that Congress doesn’t have a right to use the Congressional Review Act to turn over rules rushed through during the final days of the Obama Administration, which took game control authority on federal refuge land out of the hands of the State of Alaska.

The Center for Biological Diversity wants the rule reinstated that prohibits Alaska Fish and Game predator control measures, which the environmentalists have claimed allows game managers to kill wolves and their pups in dens and gun down grizzly bears at bait stations.” Those types of predator control are extremely rare in Alaska (see Q and A below).

In 2016, U.S. Fish and Wildlife enacted what’s known as the Refuges Rule. The lawsuit says that in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, Congress delegated to the Department of Interior authority for managing the National Wildlife Refuge System and directed that such refuges in Alaska be managed to “conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity.”

That last part is a point of contention. Rod Arno of the Alaska Outdoor Council says Alaska was exempted from the “diversity” portion because the size of our refuges already takes care of diversity.

The lawsuit says that if Congress wants to constrain Interior, it’s going to have to go through the usual means, which involves passage of a new bill.

Instead, the Republican House and Senate used a measure passed during the Newt Gingrich “Contract With America” era, which allows it to undo Executive Branch rule-making that happens during a president’s final months.

“Such Congressional overreaching undermines the separation of powers that must be maintained between the legislative and executive branches, in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” the lawsuit claims.

The Congressional Review Act has not been used widely in its 20-year existence, so few are ready to declare whether it can pass constitutional challenge.

The lawsuit, however, underscores the need for the Trump Administration to quickly fill out Department of Interior political appointments as they pertain to Alaska.  Several key posts remain unfilled three months in to the new Administration.

“If not, then the lawyers will come up with the arguments all by themselves,” said a congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Assistant Secretary for Wildlife and Parks has yet to be appointed, and could play an important role in defending the Trump Administration against the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit. Also pending is the Alaska Assistant to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a position that is still being discussed with candidates, even today.

Despite opposition from the State of Alaska, Native Alaskans, and the hunting community, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized regulations that limited or ended predator control on national wildlife refuges in Alaska.  These rules went into effect on September 4, 2016 and change long-standing practices related to wolf and bear populations, as they impact caribou and moose availability for hunters and subsistence users. Those FWS rules that were rolled back are here.

In March, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game published this Q and A about Alaska’s predator control program:

TRUTH ABOUT ALASKA’S REFUGE RULE REPEAL

The (HJR 69) repeal nullifies regulations that allowed the federal government to override state wildlife management authority on Alaska’s 16 wildlife refuges. Contrary to what some activists claim, it does not allow hunters to gas wolf pups in their dens, to shoot bears and wolves from airplanes, or allow bears to be taken in steel-jawed traps.

FACTS:

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA PERMIT AERIAL GUNNING OF BEARS?
A. Aerial hunting of bears is prohibited under general hunting regulations. Bears may be taken from the air in state-approved intensive management programs in limited areas by state staff only. The state is not conducting intensive management for bears on any federal lands, nor was it prior to the FWS rule.

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA ALLOW AERIAL HUNTING OF WOLVES?
A. Aerial hunting of wolves is prohibited under general hunting regulations. Only agents of the state in approved intensive management programs in limited areas may hunt wolves from the air. There are no state intensive management programs on National Park Service or FWS lands.

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA PERMIT THE GASSING OF WOLF PUPS?
A. This is prohibited under general hunting regulations.

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA ALLOW HARVEST OF BEARS AND/OR CUBS IN DENS?
A. The harvest of black bears at dens is allowed in a limited area under state and federal regulations where it is considered a customary and traditional practice for obtaining food.

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA ALLOW HARVEST OF WOLVES OR WOLF PUPS IN DENS?
A. No. This can occur only in approved intensive management programs and only by state staff. It was done in one program in 2008 and 2009.

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA PERMIT THE TAKING OF BEARS OVER BAIT?
A. Yes. The harvest of bears over bait is a form of regulated take in many areas of Alaska and the Lower 48 states. The Federal Subsistence Board also allows federally qualified subsistence users to harvest bears over bait on federal land.

Q. DOES THE STATE OF ALASKA ALLOW BEARS TO BE TAKEN IN STEEL-JAWED TRAPS?
A. No.

Q. WILL THE STATE BOARD OF GAME AUTHORIZE PREDATOR CONTROL IN REFUGES?
A. No, only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can authorize predator control programs in refuges.

For more, visit http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=hottopics.res69

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