The State of Alaska has taken the Obama administration to court one last time.
State attorneys filed a lawsuit against outgoing Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service leaders Jan. 13, contending new regulations limiting predator control on federal wildlife refuge lands unlawfully step on state management authority.
In August, the Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a rule to prohibit bear trapping; the baiting of brown bears; and the use of aircraft to take bears among other restrictions within Alaska refuges. The rule also restricts the take of wolves and coyotes during the spring-summer denning season.
Applicable to 16 federal wildlife refuges in Alaska, which total nearly 77 million acres, the rule covers about 20 percent of the state.
The Fish and Wildlife rule largely mirrors predator take restrictions for national preserves put in place by the National Park Service in 2015.
State officials argue in their 47-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court of Alaska that the rules disregard states’ longstanding authority to manage wildlife, including on federal lands, and give federal agencies the purview to further restrict future fish and game harvests intended to be under state control.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, stated in its Federal Register posting for the final rule that state game regulations allowing the effective predator take methods are “inconsistent with the conservation of fish and wildlife populations and their habitats in their natural diversity,” and therefore are in conflict with several federal public lands laws, including the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA.
Passed in 1980, ANILCA established Alaska’s current federal refuge system and contains some land management provisions unique to Alaska.
The Federal Register docket characterizes the prohibited take methods as means of “predator control” to increase prey — moose, caribou and deer — populations utilized for sport and subsistence harvest.
“We prohibit predator control on refuges in Alaska, unless it is determined necessary to meet refuge purposes; is consistent with federal laws and policy; and is based on sound science in response to a conservation concern,” the USFWS states. “Demands for more wildlife for human harvest cannot be the sole or primary basis for predator control.”
However, the Alaska Constitution requires fish and wildlife management in the state to be based on the “sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.”
Additionally, state law defines sustained yield as a management objective that accounts for “a high level of human harvest of game,” a fact state attorneys note repeatedly in their complaint.
The state’s management relies on the underlying principle that if humans harvest prey species, natural predators must also be actively managed to maintain a balanced ecosystem.
“Alaskans depend on wildlife for food. These federal regulations are not about predator control or protecting the state’s wildlife numbers,” Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in a release announcing the lawsuit. “These regulations are about the federal government trying to control Alaskans’ way of life and how Alaskans conduct their business. This is contrary to state and federal law.”
The state further alleges the federal rules in question disregard “recognized scientific principles that show these (state) regulations are necessary to protect healthy populations of fish and wildlife,” the complaint states.
Rather, the Park and Fish and Wildlife rules prevent the state from managing for sustainable populations while accounting for hunting and fishing opportunities, which violates ANILCA, according to the State of Alaska.
The Fish and Wildlife Service cited testimony by the late former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens from when ANILCA was passed indicating the intent of the law was to give FWS discretion to manage game populations on Alaska refuges for healthy and balanced predator-prey populations; and that management for such “natural diversity” could include human uses such as subsistence harvests.
Former Arizona Rep. Morris Udall, chairman of the House committee with oversight of the Interior Department when ANILCA was passed and sponsor of the bill, is also cited in the rule docket in an attempt to clarify legislative intent.
According to FWS, Udall stated in a floor speech nine days after passage of ANILCA that Congress intended to “direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the best of its ability…to manage wildlife refuges to assure that habitat diversity is maintained through natural means, avoiding artificial developments and habitat manipulation programs.”
The state’s complaint also questions the objectivity and validity of the environmental assessment process — required by the National Environmental Policy Act — used by the federal agencies to draft the rules.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.