Alaska Officials Considering Proposal To Kill Predators in National Parks Without Park Service Approval

Alaska wildlife officials are considering a proposal to control predators on national park lands without Park Service approval. Wolf photo taken in Yellowstone National Park by Jim Peaco, NPS.

Alaska wildlife officials, in a move certain to flare jurisdictional issues between the state and federal governments if OKed, are proposing that they be allowed to kill predators in national parks and preserves without prior approval from the National Park Service. The proposal has prompted a message from Park Service officials that Alaska's wildlife management powers "are not absolute when we are dealing with federal lands within the state."

The matter is before the Alaska Board of Game, which convenes Friday in Fairbanks for a session that runs through March 7. A number of proposals that could involve national parks and preserves are among the agenda items for the session, but none has drawn as much attention as "Proposal 131." According to the Board of Game's agenda, this proposal drafted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game would allow the state to control predators -- mainly wolves -- on park lands without Park Service permission.

"Right now they have to come to us for approval of those reduction programs. This would essentially eliminate that requirement for approval," said John Quinley, the Park Service's assistant regional director for communications and partnerships in Alaska. "They would have to come to us to consult, so it changes the way they do business, but it doesn’t change the laws under which we would say 'yes' or 'no'.”

The proposal seems to be driven by low caribou numbers on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-managed wildlife refuge in the Aleutian islands. However, the proposal before the Board of Game addresses both Fish and Wildlife Service and Park Service lands in the state.

“Under their regulation, they would no longer have to seek our approval," said Dave Mills, a former superintendent at Gates of Arctic National Park and Preserve and Yukon-Charley National Preserve who now runs subsistence programs in Alaska for the Park Service. "They could just consult with us on potential predator control activities. The problem with that is we have laws and regulations that require us to do certain things before that (predator control) would happen, or not to allow that. In the case of predator control, there’s a whole set of conditions that would have to be met before we would even consider anything like that."

So concerned are the two federal agencies that the regional directors for both the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service plan to provide testimony on Friday about the impacts such a rule change could have. In a joint letter sent earlier this month to the Board of Game, Park Service Regional Director Sue Masica and Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Geoffrey Haskett pointed out that the proposed change could "directly affect federal lands and the wildlife that use those lands."

"It has been suggested that by removing these State regulations, compliance with specific Federal laws might be avoided," the letter went on. "We need to be clear; all of the Federal statutes that apply to park, monument, preserve and refuge lands must be fully complied with, regardless of the disposition of this State regulation. Our initial assessment of the proposal is that even if it were to pass, predator control activities within parks and refuges would require specific Federal authorization and supporting NEPA analysis. We understand the State's concern about State management of wildlife in Alaska and do not wish to intrude on those traditional powers; however, those powers are not absolute when we are dealing with Federal lands within the State.

"The discussion created by this proposal is touching upon fundamental jurisdictional issues between the Federal and State governments."

This is just the most recent point of contention between the state of Alaska and the National Park Service when it comes to wildlife management. According to Jim Stratton, the Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, "since 2001, the Park Service has regularly objected in writing to changes in state sport hunting rules on national preserve lands in Alaska, where sport hunting is allowed. However, NPCA has documented 46 times where the Board of Game ignored these written NPS requests for national preserve lands to be exempted from new state regulations."

One such case arose in 2007 when the Park Service, NPCA, and other conservation groups urged the Board of Game to reduce the hunting quota on brown bears taken in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

The conflicts of wildlife management arise, say both NPCA and Park Service officials, because Alaska officials want to manage wildlife for hunting foremost.

"In 1994, the State passed its Intensive Management laws requiring that game be managed in Alaska for human consumption. Simply put, the state wants to reduce populations of predators like wolves and bears so more moose and caribou can survive to be hunted," Mr. Stratton wrote in a letter opposing Proposal 131. "Whether that philosophy is based in sound science is not to be debated here – it is state law. (But) federal agencies have a completely different wildlife management mandate. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act clearly says that NPS must manage for 'natural and healthy' populations of wildlife in national parks and monuments and 'natural' populations in national preserves. The Park Service’s Management Policies are very clear that wildlife populations cannot be manipulated to benefit one species over another. State predator control programs and hunting regulations targeting a reduction in wolf and bear populations is in direct conflict with these federal mandates."

At the Park Service regional office, Mr. Quinley acknowledged the different missions between the Park Service and the Alaska Board of Game.

“The Board of Game is focused on a very different mission than the Park Service. They’re working under state rules for a sustained yield and to try to maximize opportunities for sport hunters, and we’re not," he said. "And so a lot of times we don’t agree with the longer seasons, higher bag limits, and some of the methods and means and we’ve got objections."

While the wording of Proposal 131 indicates the state wants to control predators anywhere in Alaska, currently Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve seems most likely to be affected if the proposal passes as there have been state-directed predator control efforts "coming essentially right up to our boundaries in Yukon-Charley," said Mr. Quinley. It possibly could impact Katmai National Park and Preserve, as a caribou herd there has seen a population drop, added Mr. Mills.

And yet, the normal lag between passage of a regulation and its implementation likely would give the Park Service time to try to block its impact on parks, he said.

"Usually when the Game Board acts, there’s some period of time before a hunt or a program begins," said Mr. Quinley. "That would give us an opportunity to do what we needed to do legally.”

Comments

I am appalled that Alaska calls killing wolves "sports hunting". I can only say, sadly, that Alaska doesn't seem to care about the wildlife. We are supposed to be stewards of our environment and wildlife. I do not see Alaska honoring those guidelines. Truly very sad.

The really interesting part of this story is philosophical. The basic philosophical difference is:

Alaska Board of Game:
Large herbivores and other "hunt-able" prey are the equivalent of cattle, sheep, and other domestic animals. To maximize their availability to human hunters, competing predators must be reduced or eliminated. This is "active" management for human hunters.

National Park Service:
Large herbivores and other prey are part of a "wild" ecosystem that should function with little "interference" from humans. If human hunting is allowed---as it is in Alaska---then it must be "matched" with hunting by wolves, etc.

The ironic part of this is that both strategies treat the land as a cultural landscape and that all the pretensions of a "Wild Alaska" by either the Alaska Tourist Board or the National Park Service are just that!

This battle has been ongoing for over 40 years. The conservation organization, Northern Center for the Environment, was originally formed in response to the state's practice of unlimited aerial wolf hunting to cull wolf numbers and increase opportunities for hunters to harvest prey species. The Alaska Board of F&G has consistently made it clear that they consider all wildlife to "belong" to the state and to be subject to state management regardless of federal mandates. The National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are committed manage wildlife within their respective units based on federal laws, regulations and policies. There has been an uneasy truce between ADF&G and the Park Service over the years with the Board of Game constantly testing the Park Service's will to carry out its management mandate. It takes strong NPS management to hold the line. Whenever the service retreats it will likely never regain lost ground.