Judge tosses lawsuit over federal refuge closures

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Wednesday, July 30, 2014 10:33pm
  • News

JUNEAU — A federal judge in Alaska has dismissed the state’s lawsuit over the closure of national wildlife refuges during the partial federal government shutdown last year.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason called the case moot in siding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Interior, which asked for the case to be tossed.

The case dates to last October, when the Fish and Wildlife Service restricted access to refuges nationwide because of the government shutdown. On Oct. 9, an official with the state Department of Fish and Game asked the federal agency if Fish and Game staff would be barred from entering the refuges for research and management activities. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official responded that such activities would not be allowed, according to Gleason’s decision.

After the state sued on Oct. 16, the federal agency clarified that the closure did not apply to research activities by Fish and Game, the order states. The lawsuit was filed as Congress was poised to pass legislation to end the shutdown.

While refuges were reopened, the state persisted in its lawsuit, which was later amended to add the Alaska Professional Hunters Association as plaintiffs. The lawsuit said the closure violated provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. In court filings, the plaintiffs said the closures impaired the state’s ability to manage fish and wildlife and affected the ability of hunting guides to use their permits, costing them money.

The state and hunting group asked that the federal government be barred from enforcing a similar closure in the future on federal refuge land in Alaska. They said the government has a history of shutdowns in arguing that another one could reasonably be expected.

But Gleason, in her order dated Tuesday, said that in this case, “even if the history of government funding gaps makes it reasonable to expect that another shutdown will occur at some point in the future, it does not make it reasonable to expect that Defendants’ response to a future shutdown would be the same as the response to the 2013 shutdown.”

During arguments in the case, an attorney for the state said that to her knowledge, no prior shutdown affected access to national wildlife refuges, Gleason wrote in her decision, finding that “insufficient to demonstrate a reasonable expectation that Plaintiffs will be subjected to a closure in the future.”

Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Law, said Wednesday that the state planned to evaluate its options for a possible appeal.

The state has a history of pushing back — and even suing — over areas of perceived federal overreach. The cost to the state so far in trying to case was about $34,000, Mills said.

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