Proposed Wildlife Refuge rule creates debate

A proposed wildlife management rule puts the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s ecosystem conservation priorities in conflict with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s game management priorities, according to speakers at a hearing on the rule Tuesday at the Kenai Wildlife Refuge visitor center.

Rules proposed by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal parent agency of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and overseer of 16 refuges covering about 76.7 million acres in Alaska, would prohibit certain methods of predator hunting on refuge land, as well as changing conditions for game closures.

13 people spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Six supported the rule, including David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, and Kaitlin Vadla of conservation non-profit Cook Inletkeeper. Those against it included two members of the Fish and Game Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee — Mike Crawford and Monte Roberts — Fish and Game Board of Game chairman Ted Spraker, and his wife Elaina Spraker, a Regional Director of the office of U.S Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

A Fish and Wildlife Service statement on the rule describes the prohibited methods as “particularly effective” ways of taking predators. They include baiting brown bears, trapping black or brown bears, and killing bears from airplanes or on the same day a hunter has traveled by air (a prohibition that already applies to wolves and wolverines). It would also prohibit hunting wolves and coyotes during their denning season from May 1 to August 9.

The rules exempt subsistence hunting. No one who identified as a subsistence hunter spoke at Tuesday’s hearing.

“What we’re really focusing on here is not over-targeting predators like wolves and bears for the benefit of human consumption of game animals,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Chief of Refuges Sarena Selbo said.

In the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a prohibition against bear trapping and hunting bear cubs, or sows with cubs, is already in effect under state regulations. Current refuge rules also prohibit brown bear baiting, though not black bear baiting. If the rule is finalized, the Kenai refuge’s coyote hunting season would be shortened by three months.

Selbo contrasted the federal rule’s ecosystem focus with the yield-focused management that the state’s Department of Fish and Game practices under statutory requirements.

Statute requires it to practice intensive management, a strategy designed to “identify moose, caribou, and deer populations that are especially important food sources for Alaskans, and to insure that these populations remain large enough to allow for adequate and sustained harvest,” according to the Fish and Game website.

Fish and Game has opposed the rule, as well as a similar National Park Service hunting rule in October 2015.

Under the intensive management mandate, it eliminates predators to increase populations of prey species. Selbo said the proposed Fish and Wildlife rule has an opposite purpose.

“In this rule, we’re really looking at making sure there’s a natural mix (of animals),” Selbo said. “The predator control we’ve seen in the last couple of years has promoted game species, sometimes over predators. We believe in a natural mix of species, and that sometimes populations vary up and down naturally, sometimes in cyclical fashions, and not artificially inflating one for the benefit of the other.”

According to its website, Alaska Fish and Game has nine active intensive management programs, all including elimination of wolves for the benefit of moose or caribou.

Three active programs being carried out along the Kuskokwim River and the west side of Cook Inlet, also include baiting and trapping for brown and black bears.

On the Peninsula, an intensive management program for moose is being carried out in the area north of Sterling. The program uses both moose habitat enhancement and aerial wolf hunting.

It takes place outside of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, which covers much of the program’s area.

Roberts, a fishing guide and member of Fish and Game’s Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game advisory board, said that although implementing the rule would have little effect on the Fish and Wildlife’s present management activity, he opposed it for the limits it may put on the agency in the future.

“These proposed rule changes are just taking tools away,” said Roberts. “Maybe they don’t need to be used right now, but take them away at a federal level, and they never, ever come back.”

Ed Schmitt, speaking in favor of the rule, said Fish and Game’s intensive management program on the northern Kenai Peninsula demonstrated what he called the failure of predator control to raise the moose population, citing Fish and Game’s draft management plan for the area, Game Management Unit 15A.

The program Schmitt referred to began in 2013 with a goal of raising moose population to between 3,000 to 3,500 and maintaining a harvest rate of 180 to 350 moose per year. A Fish and Game Survey from 2012 counted 1,569 moose in the area. Thorough moose counts have not completed since then because of low snow cover, which makes moose difficult to spot.

Although there is no present moose count comparable to the 2013 number, the number of moose harvested did increase between 2013 and 2014 — from 30 to 41 — although the program’s August 2015 report to the Alaska Board of Game attributed the increase to a loosened antler requirement for harvestable moose. Schmitt said the program was failing to achieve its population goals.

“While at a superficial level, it is appealing to think that killing predators would lead to more prey, in reality it is an expensive diversion from dealing with the real problem,” Schmitt said. “The board of game would be far better off addressing the critical issue, which is habitat degradation by increasing human population.”

Ted Spraker, speaking against the rule as an individual and not representing the Board of Game, said the rule’s prohibited measures were not comparable to Fish and Game’s actual predator-control practices.

“A major part of this process is being sold to the public as predator control,” Ted Spraker said. “…Predator control is much, much different than what is being talked about here.”

He said predator control as used by the Fish and Game was not an extended hunting season or a set of hunting practices, but a “very surgical and active program” usually done from aircraft and requiring studies, advisory committees, coordination with the agency’s long-term plan, and public commentary.

Spraker said he opposed the rule for other provisions that would change how the refuge can close itself to hunting.

The rules add criteria — “conservation of natural and biological diversity, biological integrity, and environmental health” — to the list of reasons a closure can be declared, and also increases the maximum length of an emergency closure from 30 to 60 days and removes the one-year time limit for temporary closures, limiting their length to the requirement that the closure be evaluated at a minimum of every three years. Ted Spraker said these changes could potentially allow a Refuge administrator to declare closures for arbitrary reasons.

Elaina Spraker read a statement from Senator Sullivan’s office opposing the rule on legal grounds. Sullivan has called for a 120-day extension to the comment period and has amended a bill currently in the senate, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2015, to prohibit the new rule.

The statement, read by Elaina Spraker, emphasized that the rule had originated not within congress but in the federal administration, and described it as “an ideology that was implemented into policy that the Fish and Wildlife Service now seeks to fold into regulation.”

In an interview after the presentation, Elaina Spraker said the Fish and Wildlife rule conflicted with statements made by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens in 1980 regarding the intent of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Stevens said the term “natural diversity” used in ANILCA was “not intended to preclude predator control on refuge lands in appropriate instances.” Spraker said the use of the term “natural diversity” in the proposed Fish and Wildlife rule contradicted the usage of the term Stevens intended in ANILCA. Lawmakers’ statements of intent included in the Congressional Record have no formal legal authority, but are sometimes used to interpret laws.

The statement read by Spraker also accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of hypocrisy, giving instances of the agency using predator control in its own management. Selbo confirmed that the Fish and Wildlife Service also uses predator control for the benefit of priority species, giving the example of the agency’s targeting of foxes to protect the threatened Steller’s eider sea duck. She said Fish and Wildlife’s use of predator control to protect endangered species is not comparable with Fish and Game’s efforts to increase harvestable game populations.

“(Fish and Game) have different mandates than we do,” Selbo said. “Our mandates are geared towards natural diversity, and they have mandates that are geared toward maximizing food for human consumption.”

The proposed rule will be open for public comments until March 8. Comments can be submitted online at regulations.gov. According to a Fish and Wildlife information sheet, the agency intends to publish a final rule in summer 2016.

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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