“Senate votes to lift limits on hunting Alaska grizzlies and wolves on federal land,” headlined the Washington Post, although the Senate proposal, which has already passed the House, has absolutely no effect on the seasons and bag limits now imposed on hunting for grizzlies and other species of wildlife on refuge lands in Alaska.
What the legislation does is lift new regulations President Barack Obama sought to impose on Alaska refuges on his way out of office. The regulations set a precedent for a federal takeover of wildlife management on refuges nationwide, which led the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to back its repeal.
The association represents the fish and wildlife agencies of all 50 states. Association director Ronald J. Regan in February told the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water that his organization feared the legislation could end wildlife management in the country.
Along with usurping “Alaska’a authority to manage fish and wildlife for sustained yield, including predators and large ungulates on national wildlife refuges, in favor of a hands-off or passive management paradigm,” he warned, the law would set the stage for “litigation that seeks to apply that policy to the entire national wildlife refuge system under the argument that what is good for Alaska should be good for all refuges given that it is a national system. A recent public relations appeal by the Humane Society of the United State supporting this proposed rule already refers to it as applying to all national wildlife refuges.”
State officials in Alaska and the other 49 states saw the Obama proposal as federal overreach. Animals loves across the country, and some of the media, saw it as federal salvation.
“The FWS rule facing repeal explicitly prohibited many kinds of ‘predator control’ on the 16 federal owned refuges in Alaska,” NPR reported. “That prohibition included a ban on the aerial hunting, live trapping or baiting of predators such as bears and wolves — as well as on killing those predators while near their dens or their cubs.”
But there is now no predator control underway on any refuge in Alaska, said Bruce Dale, the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and there are no plans for predator control, in part because of the cost and difficulty of meeting the standards for such programs already required by federal law.
When the state in 2010 proposed predator control on Unimak Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife refuge to save what appeared to be a disappearing herd of genetically distinct caribou, the FWS warned that a permit would be required before that action could begin.
The state sued, arguing it didn’t need a permit. A federal district court judge sided with the FWS, which then said it needed to conduct an environmental assessment of the state’s plan under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before it could issue a permit.
The state did most of the work on that analysis and paid most of the costs, Dale said. The final environmental analysis put together jointly by state and federal wildlife biologists contained three different plans for reducing wolf numbers on the remote, 1,600-square-mile island 700 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The analysis also contained the legally required “no action” alternative.
When the FWS put the plan out for public review, the agency got about 95,000 comments – almost all opposed to wolf control. The FWS subsequently picked the “no action” alternative.
Given that experience, Dale said, the state has no plans to propose wolf control on any national wildlife refuges in Alaska. It is simply too costly and time-consuming to go through the NEPA process, he said.
And wildlife can usually survive in wilderness areas without management. The Unimak herd, which once numbered almost 7,000 animals, sank perilously low – it was under 100 animals with only six bulls among them by the winter of 2011-2012.
But it has since began to creep upwards. The winter 2014-15 count put the herd at 230 animals, and improving calf survival indicated it was likely to keep growing. Still, the herd’s future appears difficult.
Writing in the Journal of Mammalogy in September of last year, wildlife scientists Dominique Watts and Seth Newsome said their recent research on Unimak and the Alaska Peninsula had led to the conclusion that relatively high wolf-to-ungulate ratios might even chronically limit ungulate abundance for long periods, a situation referred to as a predator pit. This is most important in areas where small ungulate populations occur (e.g., Unimak Island)….”
The predator pit
Wildlife biologists once believed predator and prey neatly regulated each other in a smooth “balance of nature,” but newer research has debunked that theory. It is now obvious that natural wildlife populations oscillate considerably through time and, especially in Alaska, may get stuck at low levels of both prey and predators – the predator pit, to which Watts and Newsome referred.
Wolf numbers on Unimak did drop as caribou declined, but they appear to be now propped up by salmon and other marine resources. Watts and Newsome said their studies discovered that “exploitation of marine resources in these areas far exceeded previously reported levels. In fact, after accounting for tissue-specific carbon isotope discrimination, mean…values for wolves in these areas more closely resembled values reported for polar bear.”
For the wolves, alternative prey is a good thing. For a struggling caribou herd, it is the opposite. It only increases their chances of dying in the fangs of a wolf.
These are the kinds of complications which made wildlife managers in all 50 states nervous about what the USFWS was trying to do in Alaska. Many national wildlife refuges in the lower 48 are heavily used by wildlife viewers, photographers, hunters and others who like to see an abundance of wildlife.
A federal shift to “passive management,” as Regan called it, could run counter to the wishes of those refuge-supporting constituencies, and the FWS appeared to be edging toward that shift.
Many state wildlife managers got very nervous when they read an Alaska policy talking about the “‘composition, structure, and functioning of ecosystems resulting from natural processes that we believe, based on sound professional judgment, were present prior to substantial human related changes to the landscape.’ In implementing this policy on refuges, we favor ‘management that restores or mimics natural ecosystem processes or functions to achieve refuge purposes(s).'”
And what, it could be asked, if one of the natural ecosystem processes or functions, was for the land to go largely barren for lengthy periods of time?
One gets into some tricky philosophical terrain there. With predator control – whether labeled as such or practiced in more traditional ways with long seasons and large bag limits for hunters and trappers pursuing predators – there will be periods with reduced numbers of predators.
But without predator control, there may be longer periods with reduced numbers of all wildlife – both predator and prey.
Alaskans have long argued across this philosophical divide, but it could be a far bigger issue in the lower 48 where far more predators are killed than in the 49th state. Federal Wildlife Services, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2014 counted 61,702 coyotes (the skinny cousin of the wolf), 2,930 foxes, 570 black bears, 322 gray wolves and 305 mountain lions among the 1.3 million non-invasive native species it killed, according to a report at Vice.com.
And that was just one federal agency. Other federal agencies are also involved in killing predators as are some states. Everbody does it at some time or another. The National Park Service killed a grizzly in Denali National Park and Preserve – Alaska’s most iconic park – last summer because it was bothering visitors.
Utah paid a $50 bounty on 8,192 coyote carcasses between July 2014 and June 2015, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
South Carolina toyed with the idea of a what might be called a coyote-killing lottery. The plan, according to The State, a South Carolina paper, was for the state wildlife agency to capture and tag a dozen coyotes and then release them back into the wild. Hunters would then be told they were there, and any hunter lucky enough to kill one wearing a tag would collect $1,000.
All of these activities run counter to polices for passive management, a new school of thought that runs counter the old school thinking once nicely reflected by the late Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel.
“You can’t just let nature run wild,” he said.