My Turn: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps out of bounds on Alaska refuges

Few places in the world maintain a stronger connection to hunting, gathering and eating well from the land than Alaska. Here, the harvest of wild foods is part of a generations-old way of life for some, while for many others the tradition extends back thousands of years to define them culturally and as individuals. The creation of national wildlife refuges in Alaska was never meant to alter those connections to the land, to change our reliance on native foods, to displace people, or to revise their subsistence activities.

 

And certainly the establishment of national wildlife refuges overall was not intended to supersede states’ rights to manage fish and wildlife within their borders.

Yet, that’s exactly what happening right now in Alaska.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently finalized regulations that supersede Alaska’s sovereign authority to manage fish and wildlife on 76 million acres of refuge lands (an area collectively the size of New Mexico). Based on subjective USFWS concepts of natural diversity and biological integrity, the new rules radically alter fish and wildlife management on refuge lands by overriding the state’s longstanding policies of sustainable, science-based wildlife management.

Make no mistake, these regulations will negatively impact wildlife populations, diversity, and food availability for Alaskans who depend upon these resources. The new rules will also impede wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, and related opportunities for refuge visitors.

As part of a national outreach campaign, the USFWS justified its new regulations in media forums by attacking Alaska’s predator management policies. USFWS Director Dan Ashe described Alaska’s programs in the “Huffington Post” as “wholly at odds with America’s long tradition of ethical, sportsmanlike, fair-chase hunting, in something they call ‘intensive predator management.’ In this context, intensive means aggressive and sustained, and management means killing.”

Don’t be distracted. Ashe’s focus on “killing” is a red herring. Alaska’s wildlife is managed under the state’s constitutionally mandated sustained yield principle. In other words, predator and prey species alike are maintained at sustainable populations, always. Even under intensive management.

In fact, Alaska’s policies to maintain sustainable predator-prey balances are based on sound, established, peer-reviewed science – the very same science the USFWS itself has long used to justify its own “aggressive and sustained … killing” of predators on public lands nationwide. Examples of USFWS-headed predator control programs, past and present, to benefit prey species and accommodate human needs would fill volumes.

Most of the killing sanctioned by USFWS these days is contracted to sister agency USDA Wildlife Services which in 2015 alone killed 385 wolves, 68,905 coyotes, and 480 bears nationwide, along with thousands of other birds and mammals. In Alaska specifically, the USFWS since 2014 has partnered with Wildlife Services to trap and kill mink to benefit pigeon guillemots on the Naked Island archipelago in Prince William Sound. They kill native foxes here, too, and marmots among other species, all to “protect and enhance” other species, or the environment in general.

So criticizing similar science-based, state-managed programs in an effort to cast the USFWS on moral high ground is, at best, perplexing. Alaska’s intensive management programs, mandated by state law, are integral to our mission to enhance wildlife and habitats and provide for a broad range of sustainable public uses and benefits. Guided by protocol that received the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Ernest Thompson Seton Award in 2012, there is no question these programs have long benefitted Alaska wildlife, habitats and people statewide.

When the Southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd plummeted from 4,200 animals in 2002 to 600 five years later, hunting seasons were closed and Alaskans in villages such as Nelson Lagoon, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay and False Pass were forced to do without. Caribou herds typically experience peaks and valleys, but in this case the downward spiral showed no sign of rebounding. Biologists ruled out forage, disease and weather as limiting factors before turning to the region’s most efficient wild predators. Opportunists by nature and necessity, wolves had established den sites in the midst of the caribou herd’s calving grounds. Easy access to newborn calves kept these wild canines well fed, but proved devastating to any hope the Southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd might recover. With calf survival to the age of one month estimated to be less than 1 percent, the Alaska Board of Game in 2008 approved an intensive management plan to reduce wolves on the calving grounds.

By the time that short-term, tightly-focused wolf removal plan was completed in 2010, caribou calf survival had increased significantly. The herd’s rapid decline was reversed and local Alaskans were again able to hunt caribou to feed themselves. Today, the Southern Alaska Peninsula herd continues to grow, now providing general hunt opportunities for Alaskans and visitors alike. And with more prey available, wolves are as prevalent — and perhaps more so, according to area biologists — than ever. The difference: Caribou numbers are now healthy enough to withstand predation.

The truth is, Alaska’s wildlife management policies aren’t broken and the new USFWS restrictions on our national wildlife refuges are biologically unwarranted. Further, the new regulations conflict not only with Alaska’s state laws, but with compromises made in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to provide for conservation and human uses with the state as the primary manager.

Contrary to USFWS comments, says Division of Subsistence Director Hazel Nelson, who grew up in the village of Egegik, this move to passive management particularly impacts subsistence users.

“These new regulations undermine Alaskans’ ability to harvest food,” says Nelson, “especially in rural subsistence communities.”

By enacting passive management based on an extreme interpretation of “natural diversity,” she explains, the USFWS places predators over prey and people rather than maintaining habitat and predator/prey balances through active, sustained-yield management.

Nelson’s views are echoed by the Alaska Federation of Natives which at its 2014 convention ratified a resolution condemning similar new regulations then proposed (and since adopted) by the National Park Service. Resolution 14-42 reads in part, “Alaska Natives have served as the stewards of their traditional lands and resources maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems for thousands of years, and maintain the belief that human beings are an integral part of naturally functioning ecosystems, not separate from them.”

Sandwiched between 76 million acres of national wildlife refuges and 54 million acres of national parks, Alaska Natives and other subsistence-dependent communities are getting boxed in by the cumulative effects of new federal regulations. In a letter last April to the Federal Subsistence Board, five Regional Advisory Councils representing a huge swath of the state from Kodiak to the Y-K Delta, Eastern Interior and beyond, requested the USFWS withdraw its then-proposed new regulations.

“The concerns most commonly expressed by the Councils,” the RACs, established under ANILCA, wrote in their censure, “were that the USFWS Proposed Rule would adversely impact subsistence users and that the implementation on Refuge lands would be contrary to managing for a subsistence priority.”

Alaska’s understanding of natural diversity has long included its coexistence with human uses — including subsistence. However, the USFWS’ apparent abandonment of this understanding, despite the requests of Alaska and others to work with them to develop a mutually acceptable interpretation, reaches to the heart of refuge management and states’ rights to manage wildlife on those lands for its people.

• Sam Cotten is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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