The onslaught against wildlife on public lands in Alaska continues, this time on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the Trump administration announced a plan to abandon existing federal hunting regulations for brown bears on the refuge, deferring to less protective state regulations instead. This reversal would allow hunters to kill brown bears at bait stations, an activity never before permitted on the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has long noted that baiting can threaten the sustainability of the Kenai brown bear population and determined that intentionally managing for low predator populations conflicts with conservation mandates for national wildlife refuges. The text of the proposal is not yet available, but it also appears to remove any permit requirement for trapping wildlife in the refuge, rendering enforcement difficult or impossible.
This move is part of the Trump administration’s agenda to abdicate federal wildlife management responsibilities on federal lands in Alaska and elsewhere around the country. This includes a current proposal by the National Park Service (NPS) to defer to state hunting policy on national preserves in Alaska, which would allow for the use of extreme methods to kill a suite of native predators.
The administration is also pushing for oil development in the Arctic Refuge that would harm threatened polar bears and for a controversial road through wilderness in the Izembek Refuge that would fragment brown bear habitat, among many other impacts. All of these actions are in addition to dramatically liberalized Alaska state hunting regulations for bears and the 2017 congressional rescission of an FWS regulation prohibiting extreme predator killing methods on all refuge lands in Alaska.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO at Defenders of Wildlife, issued the following statement:
“National wildlife refuges aren’t game farms. Allowing brown bear baiting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt to boost moose populations is flatly inconsistent with the federal government’s responsibility to manage these public lands for biological integrity and diversity. This unwarranted policy reversal would set a dangerous precedent for the National Wildlife Refuge System and could threaten the sustainability of the isolated population of Kenai brown bears in Alaska.”
The state of Alaska adopted an “intensive management” law in 1994 designed to dramatically suppress wolves, bears, and other native carnivores to artificially increase game populations. The state has since implemented increasingly aggressive predator management policies, which has included greatly liberalizing its sport hunting regulations statewide to further reduce predator populations.
Kenai brown bears are a geographically isolated population. The 16-kilometer-wide isthmus separating the Alaskan Peninsula from the adjacent mainland restricts brown bear emigration and immigration. The species is of interest and study on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge due to the insular nature of their relatively small population (including fewer females than in other Alaska brown bear populations) and increasing threats from human-caused mortality.
In November 1998, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game identified the Kenai Peninsula population of brown bears as a “Species of Special Concern,” recognizing that the population “is vulnerable to a significant decline due to low numbers, restricted distribution, dependence on limited habitat resources, or sensitivity to environmental disturbance.” The state’s action helped leverage federal funds to assist with Kenai brown bear conservation efforts. But the state then rescinded the designation three years later.
In 2012, the state-authorized killing Kenai brown bears over bait on state land on the Kenai Peninsula adjacent to Kenai Refuge. This led to an immediate six-fold increase in brown bear mortality, prompting the FWS to close the brown bear hunting season on refuge lands due to unsustainable harvest levels.
The Kenai Refuge then promulgated public use regulations in 2016 that, among other things, reiterated that brown bear-baiting was still prohibited on the refuge. The current proposed regulation would reverse that position and allow brown bear-baiting on the Kenai Refuge for the first time.
In 2010, the Kenai Refuge and U.S. Forest Service published an extensive study estimating that 582 brown bears inhabited the Peninsula, but that total is now believed to have declined substantially.
In 2017, Congress rescinded an FWS regulation protecting iconic carnivores on all national wildlife refuges in Alaska from extreme hunting methods, including baiting, snaring, and shooting bears in dens, and shooting wolves and pups in dens. The Department of the Interior subsequently directed the Kenai Refuge to reconsider its 2016 public use regulations, particularly where they diverge from state law – which led to this proposal.
An NPS regulation protecting carnivores from extreme hunting methods on national preserves in Alaska has also been targeted for rollback by the Trump administration; regulations deferring to state management preferences on preserve lands have been proposed and the administration announced today that the final regulations will be published next week.