Washington, DC — The Trump administration is taking aim at restrictions on recreational hunting and trapping inside parks and refuges in Alaska, according to directives posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The regulations limit questionable hunting techniques, such as killing bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens, luring grizzlies with rotting meat, and shooting swimming caribou from a motorboat, among other controversial methods.
In a pair of July 14, 2017 memos, Todd Willens, Trump’s newly appointed Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, orders the acting directors of the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), “to initiate a rulemaking process to reconsider” each of their agency rules. Willens cites “various prohibitions that directly contradict State of Alaska authorizations and wildlife management decisions.” Willens has been at his job for barely a week.
The essential conflict is that Alaska encourages lethal removal of predators in order to increase the supply of game animals while the federal agencies are charged with sustaining all native wildlife – including predators. Traditional federal-state cooperation in wildlife management has broken down in recent years and has been replaced with lawsuits from the state and political acrimony.
“Alaska’s national parks and wildlife refuges are required by law to manage these federal lands not as private game reserves but to protect natural diversity, including nature’s predator-prey dynamics,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, pointing out that lethal control on park boundaries is devastating in-park wolf populations. “These unethical and unsporting practices have no place in modern society, and certainly not on Alaska’s magnificent parks and refuges.”
What happens next is unclear. The Park Service will have to begin a lengthy rulemaking process which will take years; meanwhile the NPS 2015 rules remain in effect. In addition, the factors cited by Willens are political in nature and not a legitimate basis for regulation. Further, the NPS is constrained by statutory mandates that a Trump White House cannot fiat away. Thus, assuming a new rule is promulgated before Trump leaves office, it will almost certainly be swarmed by litigation challenging its validity.
The path for the refuge rules is even murkier. Congress purportedly rescinded these 2016 rules earlier this year through a disapproval resolution under the Congressional Review Act. Under that law, FWS would be forbidden from reenacting similar rules without congressional authorization. Consequently, it is uncharted territory as to what, if anything, FWS can do, absent Congress. Further complicating matters is an ongoing lawsuit challenging the application of the Congressional Review Act to these refuge rules.
“Team Trump says they do not want to give away federal lands, but they’re apparently open to having them mismanaged,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the rules do not apply to subsistence hunting or restrict the taking of wildlife for public safety purposes or defense of property. “Like most Trump initiatives, this one is ill-considered and likely ineffective but guaranteed to waste a lot of time.”
Ironically, this is unfolding even as the State of Alaska is conceding that killing wolves is not a big factor in increasing the caribou population— the stated goal of predator control. But Alaska is waiting until next year to end this program.