Repealing a law banning controversial hunting methods on Alaskan reserves could cause the national park service to cede its powers to states with less conservation-oriented goals.

When wolf hunting season opened on August 1 in Alaska, it became legal for National Reserve hunters to kill nursing mothers, as well as their young, directly in their dens. In October, when bear hunting season begins, females preparing to hibernate with their cubs may be the target of hunters in parts of Denali National Reserves and the Gates of the Arctic. Finally, in the spring, when mothers and their young come out, they will also be part of the game.

In addition, previously prohibited hunting techniques such as the use of donuts, popcorn or other human form of food to bait bears are now legal in Alaska National Reserves.

These practices are not new. Several of these have been licensed for years on vast wilderness areas across the state, and others have been used for centuries by the native peoples of Alaska. On the other hand, on lands administered by the national park service, namely national parks, nature reserves and national monuments, federal law prohibited the most controversial hunting practices.

But lo and behold, on June 9, a final law passed by the National Park Service said the United States government could no longer prevent hunters from using these methods in Alaska National Reserves. According to the National Park Service, the objective of this new text would be to tend towards an alignment of federal and state regulations.

To date, the Alaskan authorities only allowed the use of these controversial methods in certain national reserves, but the change in legislation makes this authorization possible in all 10 state reserves, an area equivalent to one country. like Austria in area.

The announcement drew heavy criticism from the scientific community, wildlife managers and animal rights organizations, for whom the new law allows cruelty to animals and hinders the conservation mission allegedly carried out by the national park service.

“Legalizing the killing of cubs and wolf cubs is appalling and goes against good hunting practices, fair hunting,” says William Ripple, an environmentalist at Oregon State University at Corvallis . “It is not at all consistent with human management. Fair hunting is the name given to a code of honor adopted by many hunting organizations which ensures the ethical and fair practice of hunting, in particular by giving an animal the chance to escape the hunter.

However, the vision of the Alaskan authorities is quite different. “Rather, you see it as an alignment of regulations between the national park service and the state,” said Eddie Grasser, director of wildlife conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

For Ripple and many others, this interpretation is wrong. They recognize that changing hunting rules are unlikely to affect overall bear and wolf populations, but they are concerned about the negative impact on the service’s mission to protect and preserve nature. national parks, not just in Alaska, but across the United States.

“This law establishes dangerous case law,” warns Ripple. “It could lead to exploitation of wildlife in federally protected areas of the 48 states further south. “

His concerns mirror those of many biologists and wildlife managers who fear it may encourage other states to pressure the federal government to secure the opening of their nationally protected areas to these controversial practices inconsistent with federal policies.

“And what will we say to those who want to kill the pumas on the federal reserves in Utah?” »Illustrates Ripple. “Or bobcats, coyotes, wolves and bears?” There are all kinds of predators in the 48 southern states. “

PRIORITY TO HUNTERS
Alaskan wildlife law is the exception in the United States, and even the world. Through its Intensive Management Law of 1994, the state ordered that certain predatory species be managed in such a way as to ensure that the populations of elk, caribou and deer “remain sufficiently supplied for sustainable and adequate harvesting. For many Alaskans, game is a vital source of food, second only to fish. According to estimates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, subsistence consumers remove 16,700 tonnes of wild food annually.

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The state’s goals for wildlife management are in stark contrast to the federal laws in effect on lands administered by the National Park Service. These areas must be managed for the conservation and enjoyment of the American public so that they are “left untouched” for future generations. In national reserves, the law indicates that hunting and fishing may be authorized if and only if these activities do not threaten their natural resources.

In Alaska, national reserves have long allowed hunting and fishing, but “what is new here is the inability of the national park service to manage Alaskan national reserve lands as conservation areas rather than ‘as bushmeat “pasture” for Alaskans, “laments Sterling Miller, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist where he specialized in ursids. “It’s degrading not only for predators but also for moose, caribou and deer, whose value is increasingly linked to the calories they provide. “

National parks, reserves, forests, sanctuaries and monuments under federal protection are, by definition, public lands held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of all American citizens, whose taxes fund the maintenance and management of said territories.

“The National Park Service was founded over a century ago to watch over our nation’s treasures and keep them intact for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations,” said Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior of the United States under the Obama administration. This new change in the law is “misguided and inconsistent with the tradition of subsistence and the concept of conservative hunters who recognize the need to preserve the balance of nature. “

In theory, as Miller explains, the Alaskan approach to wildlife management could result in habitat improvement, but in practice it has mostly focused on reducing the number of predators. attacking moose, caribou and deer, mainly wolves. The wolf hunting seasons have continued to lengthen and the number of animals slaughtered has only increased. Over time, the state has put in place specific predator control programs aimed at killing more wolves in some areas, including allowing hunters to use an airplane or helicopter to squeeze wolves towards them. a frozen lake or other open space before setting the device down to finally slaughter the exhausted animals.

The Intensive Management Act has also been enforced to reduce populations of brown bears and grizzly bears, although bears have primarily been affected by widespread liberalization of hunting rules. This liberalization is characterized in particular by the lifting of bear hunting rights, the tolerance of the use of bait, the increase in the quota of animals killed each year by a hunter and the legalization of the sale of skins and skulls. Again, the goal was to increase ungulate populations for the benefit of hunters, as bears sometimes set their sights on young elk and caribou. As a result of these measures, the number of brown bears killed by hunters doubled between 1980 and 2013, from 850 to 1,700.

Given their place at the top of the food chain, predators are keystone species on which the proper functioning and structure of ecosystems depend. Studies around the world show that predator removal can lead to cascading problems, including affecting populations of other plant and animal species, the way diseases behave in ecosystems and even the amount of carbon captured by them. these ecosystems.

“Recent scientific studies have demonstrated the fundamental importance of wolves and bears in stabilizing ecosystems,” says Ripple. “A drastic reduction in the number of large carnivores can trigger a series of events that can lead to ecosystem degradation. “

LEGISLATIVE PING-PONG
Management across the United States is often the result of cooperation between federal and state authorities. For years, the Alaskan government did not pressurize the national reserves to allow the most aggressive forms of hunting, some of which were in fact prohibited by internal state law. It was in the 2000s that the situation gradually changed, when the governor of Alaska, Frank Murkowski, began to push for the law on intensive management to be enforced and the number of predators reduced in national reserves.

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In 2015, the national park service promulgated a law in which it opposed certain proposals by the Alaskan authorities by specifically prohibiting the killing of mothers with cubs, the shooting from a boat at swimming caribou or the use of dogs. to hunt bears.

In 2017, Alaska filed a lawsuit against this new law, arguing that the national park service should pass Alaskan law on reserve management. In other words, those of biologist Sterling Miller, Alaska was “not inclined to recognize that the National Park Service had any authority other than to lie down and play dead at any request to the state. “

The following year, the Trump administration began cracking down on the 2015 law. The National Park Service released a new EA in which it concluded that while changes to hunting laws would affect some animals, family groups or packs, he did not expect controversial hunting methods to be adopted widely enough among hunters to have a significant impact on populations.

The 2015 law was repealed in October 2019, a change that was not made official until June of this year, without further explanation. The news sparked outrage, including a letter to the US Department of the Interior from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a nonprofit made up of 1,800 employees, formerly national park service employees and retirees.

“The horrific [new law of 2020] is an affront to the mission of the National Park Service and all of the employees who have worked there for the past 40 years to administer and protect the resources and values ​​of National Reserves in Alaska,” can – read in this letter. “To apply this law and ignore the scientific information and the considerable political and legal issues expressed in this letter would be unreasonable. “

Don Striker, Acting Alaska Regional Director in the National Parks Service, provided a written statement to National Geographic in which he said the June 9 law provides greater consistency between federal and state territories while simplifying the legislation for local hunters. “The bans enacted in 2015 were not necessary to maintain populations of wildlife in our federally administered territories,” he writes. “The national parks service estimated that their removal would not be accompanied by significant impacts on the resources of the park. “

CHAIN ​​REACTION
To defend its wildlife management strategy, Alaska regularly calls on supposed evidence of success, but most of it has never been demonstrated. The state, for example, attributes the 2-4% annual increase in caribou population in part to its efforts to reduce the number of wolves. However, in 2017 biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game published a peer-reviewed study in which they found no link between the increase in caribou and the decrease in wolves, likely because the number wolves killed was not large enough to have an effect: 834 between 2004 and 2017 according to figures from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Lead author of the study, Rod Boertje, further indicates that the caribou population was already on the rise with the introduction of wolf control.

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“Other scientists would disagree with these results,” Eddie Grasser of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said of the study. “The point is, the caribou population started to rise again when wolf control began. “

Several studies conducted across the United States have shown that, in most cases, reducing predators did not result in increased prey populations in the long term. In addition, it can be harmful for an entire ecosystem by causing an uncontrolled increase in herbivore populations. In a study published by the journal Biological Conservation, Ripple finds that the disappearance or reduction of top predators in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Olympic, and Wind Cave National Parks had resulted in major changes in plant communities and started transforming some plots in totally different habitats.

On the other hand, in 1995 and 1996, the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park coincided with a return to normal in the ecosystem. The number of elk has decreased, some woody plants have grown taller and the number of beavers has decreased. This suggests that restoring predator populations to places where they have disappeared would be an effective tool for restoration.

“For me, the biggest problem is that the Alaskans were fooled about the impact of the carnivore reduction on the hunters’ benefits of elk and caribou harvest,” Miller says. “We sold them salads. “

The effects of the new regulations on wildlife are going to be difficult to assess, he adds, as records kept by federal and state authorities do not take into account where the animals were slaughtered, in national reserves or elsewhere. . In addition, no data is collected on the number of people who could benefit from the hunting methods now authorized. In August, a public opinion poll conducted on a sample of 984 Alaskans found that 68% of those polled opposed the possibility of hunters killing wolf cubs in their dens, killing hibernating bears. and bait the latter with human food.

Furthermore, Grasser is convinced that the new hunting methods will not be very successful. “Most Alaskans are like me,” he says. “We hunt with a certain… ethic. I have never baited bears, I have never killed an animal in its den, and I have never shot a caribou crossing a river. “

Still, some biologists and wildlife managers remain concerned about the effects of the Trump administration’s change in law on Alaska, let alone the legislative repercussions that could threaten animals in other states. With the exception of Canada’s Far North and Russia, few other places in the world can match the Alaskan wilderness, says John Schoen, wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. now retired.

“No other state in our country yet has vast and unspoiled landscapes capable of meeting the needs of their native species, communities and ecological processes,” Schoen explains. “These areas are lands of national interest that belong to all Americans, not just Alaskan hunters. “

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Transnational environmental crime investigator.

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