The Trump administration recently made headlines by repealing part of a 2015 rule change that banned certain hunting practices on National Preserves in Alaska. The decision drummed up a considerable amount of internet outrage, with headlines blaring how President Trump opened the door for wolf pups and bear cubs to be slaughtered by hunters. Not only are those articles factually embellished, but this story doesn’t start with President Trump. It starts with President Obama.
As the sun set on President Obama’s final term, the National Park Service (NPS) adopted regulations that infringed on the State of Alaska’s established authority to manage wildlife on National Preserves. These regulations sought to override decisions by Alaska’s Board of Game taken at the request of Alaska Native communities and individuals in remote parts of the state. The NPS effectively claimed that bureaucrats more than 4,000 miles away in Washington D.C. were better equipped to manage fish and game than native Alaskans and the scientists, researchers, and professional wildlife managers employed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).
This blatant act of government overreach showed that federal bureaucrats were capable of unduly overriding the management authority of a state fish and wildlife agencies and seizing control on millions of acres of public land. The biggest issue with this rule change is the precedent it set for politicizing wildlife management and relegating it to the whims of elected officials who are far less informed to make these kinds of decisions than wildlife professionals.
Many of the hunting practices outlawed by the 2015 rule change were already prohibited under State law, such as the use of poison or machine guns in hunting. But the rule’s authors elected not to emphasize that fact. Instead, they scripted a misleading narrative. Much of the attention surrounding the withdrawal of the 2015 rule change has focused on traditional and culturally important hunting methods implemented by Alaska Native communities in remote parts of the state. For example, the harvest of hibernating bears in dens is practiced by an Alaska Native community in the Alaskan bush. A handful of bears – at most – are taken this way each year, largely depending on the severity of the winter. The take of swimming caribou is similarly limited to a remote area and practiced by an Alaska Native community. These are not widely utilized practices—but neither the 2015 rule change nor current media coverage have made that clear. Thus, the public response to withdrawing prohibitions on these practices has understandably been negative because it is based on false assumptions.
The 2015 rule change further restricted the hunting of bears, wolves, and coyotes by defining Board of Game-approved methods and hunting seasons as “predator reduction” measures. The Board of Game authorized the hunting of bears over bait in remote areas with dense vegetation and extended the hunting season for wolves and coyotes in areas with abundant populations. The NPS claimed that the closure of baiting and the extended seasons would protect all of Alaska’s wildlife, suggesting that the Board of Game was prioritizing the conservation of game species typically preyed on by bears and wolves over the predators – a claim disputed by Eddie Grasser, the Director of Wildlife Conservation for ADF&G.
According to Grasser, “the State of Alaska has always sought to maintain sustainable predator population densities that match local ecosystems. As we carefully documented, any harvest increases as a result of traditional practices were not expected to have any impact on sustainable wolf, bear, or prey population densities.” Grasser criticized the NPS’ failure to provide scientific data or analysis to support the 2015 rule change. He noted,” they even neglected to scientifically define the ’natural’ population densities they allegedly sought.”
Safari Club International (SCI) filed a lawsuit alongside the State and the Alaska Professional Hunters Association once the 2015 rule change was announcing, citing that it. The contradicted NPS rules that have been on the books for decades and violated statutes implemented to protect the self-governance of Alaska. By restoring management authority over hunting practices on federal land to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the rules are again mainly in compliance with the Alaska Statehood Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
With the recent withdrawal of the 2015 rule change, Alaskans will once again be able to join in the traditional hunting methods that their ancestors have been practicing for generations. Alaska Natives in remote areas will be able to use a higher number of methods to harvest game to make it through the harsh winters. The state will maintain its legally mandated authority to set and manage hunting methods and seasons. Most importantly, the subjective ethical views of politicians in Washington, D.C., have been set aside. Instead, the needs of Alaskans and Alaska’s wildlife have been prioritized. Despite the media and social media hype, this story has a happy ending.