Conservation groups move to intervene in predator control lawsuits

A group of than a dozen environmental groups is attempting to become a party to two lawsuits against the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The lawsuits, filed by the State of Alaska and Safari Club International in January, challenge the agencies’ rules prohibiting certain hunting practices and predator control activities in national preserves and national wildlife refuges in Alaska. The Safari Club’s lawsuit additionally targets the rules on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge specifically. Both plaintiffs claim the rules circumvent state management of game resources and block subsistence and sport hunters’ access.

Environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska filed an intervention motion Feb. 8 on behalf of 15 Alaska organizations, asking for the court to admit the groups as a party in defense of the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife’s regulations. The court can grant an intervention if the judge rules that the requesting party has a relevant interest in the case and if the current litigants may not represent that interest fully.

Pat Lavin with the Alaska office of Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization advocating for the conservation of wildlife species in natural ecosystems, said the group wants to weigh in because the members feel their quality of life would be negatively impacted if the regulations are removed.

“You just have a conflicting wildlife management philosophy between refuge lands, which are managed for wildlife biological diversity … and the state’s management philosophy, at least in predator control areas, of deliberately suppressing predator populations to try to increase prey populations,” he said. “It’s just those fundamentally different goals that are the issue. What the court should uphold is the FWS duty to manage refuge lands consistent with those refuge purposes.”

The groups involved — including Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, among others — have been outspoken in opposing the state’s intensive management programs, which can include active predator control efforts. When the state government and the Safari Club filed their lawsuits, the additional groups beacme aware quickly and decided to get involved, said Michelle Sinnott, a staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, which is representing the groups.

The federal rules were particularly informed by recent decisions at the Board of Game, which allowed hunters to take brown bears over bait and to take wolves during denning season, Sinnott said.

While in the past the state has directly targeted prey species with intensive management, liberalizing hunting practices allows hunters to take predators more efficiently, she said.

“Our motion to the court is that all of these interests are incredibly important and they’re at risk if (the judges) rule in favor of the state,” Sinnott said.

The rules affect both the national wildlife refuges in Alaska and the national preserves, which include areas like Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula. The National Park Service has repeatedly opposed the state’s predator control decisions, said Jim Adams, Alaska regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocating for the protection of the national parks. The organization finally changed its rules to formalize its opposition to the state’s decision.

Though it’s hard to quantify what the state and its people would lose if the state continued to reduce predator populations, surveys have shown that wildlife viewing, particularly predators, is important to the state’s millions of visitors, he said.

“We can’t say that if we kill all the bears, it will cost us this much, but we can say that there’s a lot at stake and that wildlife, bears, predators are very important part of Alaska,” Adams said.

The plaintiffs in both lawsuits are seeking for the court to void theNational Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service’s rules and prevent them from implementing similar rules in the future. The intervention is seeking the opposite, for the court to reaffirm the rules, Sinnott said.

“From our clients’ perspective, it should come down to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service having ample authority to have the regulations put into place,” she said. “There are … all kinds of reasons why those regulations are incredibly important to the places our clients go to visit.”

The two lawsuits may not be the catalyst for dropping the rules, though. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution nullifying Fish and Wildlife’s rules on the national refuges on Thursday, a resolution authored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). The Senate still has to vote on the resolution for it to become valid. The resolution would not apply to the National Park Service’s rules, which were passed too long ago to be repealed in the same way.

Young called the rules “a power grab” in a statement on the resolution’s passage, saying he would work with Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, on consideration in the Senate.

“I’m thankful to all those that played a role in moving this important resolution of disapproval, including the countless state and local stakeholders that worked with me to fight a very serious and alarming overreach by the previous administration,” Young said in the statement.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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