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Alaska Editorial: Park service did the right thing

Posted: June 21, 2013 - 12:07am

This editorial first apeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

For the second time in three years, a person has used a firearm to defend against a large animal in Denali National Park. Three years ago, it was a bear. Earlier this month, it was a moose.

In both cases, the National Park Service reacted in a reasonable fashion by declining to press charges against the shooters. While the call might seem like a no-brainer in both cases, situations likely will arise where the decision is harder. People should understand the balancing act that the agency faces.

The animal shootings in Denali became more likely after Congress decided in 2010 to allow people to carry firearms in national parks. While that was a big change for the Lower 48, it was minor news in Alaska. Firearms were allowed right from the start in the vast national parks created by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Only in the few older federal parks, including Denali, were firearms still not permitted until the recent congressional action.

So people have begun to carry such weapons in Denali. It’s still illegal to fire them for any reason, but people have done so at least twice.

In late May 2010, a North Pole man shot a bear that charged his girlfriend. The bear stopped and ran off. Later, it was found dead from its wounds.

This year, on June 6, an Eagle River man shot a cow moose that probably was defending twin calves. He was hiking with friends and family on the Triple Lakes Trail, a popular short hike near the visitor’s center, when they saw the cow about 75 feet away. They started backing away but the moose charged them, and they ran. The man shot the moose once in the head when it was about five to 10 feet from him, fatally wounding it. Park employees later dispatched the moose. If he hadn’t shot the moose, the man said later, he would have tried to block it with his body to protect his friends and their children, ages 5 and 7.

In both cases, the Park Service has declined to recommend charges against the men for discharging a firearm in a national park. This reflects a long-standing legal principle that defends a person’s right to break the law if a greater good is the result. It’s illegal, for example, to kick down a door in a building that doesn’t belong to you. But if the building was burning, and, by breaking the door, you saved a baby inside, what sane prosecutor would file charges against you?

However, the application of this principle in the moose and bear shootings must be moderated by other considerations. For example, we don’t want populations of moose, bears or any other park animals to be diminished because they’re being shot every time someone feels threatened. Nearly 400,000 people visited Denali last summer. There’s a lot of potential for conflict there, especially near the park entrance.

In reality, though, incidents have been rare. Two shootings in three years pose no risk to Denali’s bear and moose populations. Far more are shot all across the state without populations declining. Also, in the Alaska parks where firearms were allowed from the start, there was no discernible harm to bear or moose numbers. Granted, those parks and Alaska’s other remote areas have far fewer visitors than Denali, but experience during the past three years hasn’t indicated a problem.

After Congress lifted the ban on firearm possession in 2010, we noted in this column that “it inevitably will lead to the death of bears and perhaps even a few angry large ungulates” in Denali. We can now remove the “perhaps” from that observation.

That doesn’t change the wisdom of the policy, though. In circumstances such as the moose shooting, the old policy could have led to a horrific outcome. No one would want to have seen those two young children trampled.

In addition, while they weren’t babies in a burning building, they shared the same moral space. So prosecuting a man for illegally firing his gun to save those kids would violate common sense.

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