The beginning of the end of over-suppression of predators in Alaska?

When Jim Stratton, deputy vice president for the National Parks Conservation Association, heard last week that the National Park Service had announced a sweeping new rule banning the manipulation of predators and prey in Alaska’s national preserves, his reaction was — to put it mildly — unfettered joy. “This is totally exciting news,” he says. “I’ve only been working this for ten years. Game on.”

The reaction of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation? A little more tepid. Director Doug Vincent-Lang sees any attempt by the feds to usurp Alaska’s wildlife management authority as overreach, and this new rule — which maintains hunting rights on Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves but bans certain controversial practices — is overreach at its worst: “unfounded and unjust,” he told Alaska Dispatch News.

The proposed rule is currently up for public comments, and will likely be implemented next year. It prohibits the baiting of brown bears, the killing of wolves and coyotes when pups are in tow, and the use of artificial light to kill black bears in their dens. It also pre-emptively prohibits any other practice “with the intent or potential to alter or manipulate natural predator-prey dynamics.” In other words, killing predators to boost ungulate populations will no longer be allowed in Alaska’s national preserves.

To understand just how big this is, it helps to backtrack to 2002, when former Republican governor Frank Murkowski took office. One of Murkowski’s first actions was to remove five of seven members of the Board of Game — the body responsible for most wildlife decisions — and replace them with new appointees more supportive of “intensive management:” reducing predator populations to bolster the moose and caribou that many Alaskans depend on for food. Almost overnight, the state went from non-lethal management to gunning down wolves from the air.

In the dozen years since, Alaska’s predator control efforts have only intensified. In addition to allowing aerial shooting, the board eliminated a 122-square-mile buffer protecting wolves around Denali National Park; allowed the baiting of brown bears, illegal since statehood; extended the wolf and coyote hunting season to months when the animals have pups (and their pelts are worthless); and approved “spotlighting,” or using artificial light to rouse hibernating black bears to shoot them as they emerge.

Many environmentalists dislike such practices, but they accept that Alaska has the right to do what it will on state land. Yet because Alaskan agencies manage wildlife on both state and federal land, the board also tried to implement such practices on Alaska’s national preserves, where hunting is allowed.

The issue drove a wedge between state wildlife agencies and the National Park Service. The Board of Game says it’s only adhering to a 1994 food security law; the Park Service maintains that manipulating the predator and prey dynamic is antithetical to their very existence: “We’re managing parks not as a game farm that produces high numbers of prey species, but as an ecosystem where you see natural gains and losses in predator and prey populations,” says spokesman John Quinley. “That’s based on (federal) law.”

Since 2001, the Park Service has asked the Board of Game roughly 60 times to exclude certain practices from national preserves, to no avail. So each year, the Park Service goes through the complex, costly process of individually overriding each of the state hunting regulations in each national preserve. Each year, public notices and meetings are held around the state. They’ve become so routine hardly anyone bothers to show up any more.

That’s about to change. The new rule will not only replace temporary, inefficient bans with a permanent, statewide ban, it’ll also enable the agency to opt out of any future hunting regulations that could inhibit natural diversity. “We don’t know what (the state) is going to come up with in the future,” says Stratton. “If they decide they want to allow brown bear baiting in some place where they don’t have it now, this gives the Park Service a way to push back.”

Yet though the proposed rule will help the Park Service maintain natural conditions on the land it manages, it won’t help predators that inadvertently wander beyond the agency’s invisible boundaries. In the past several years, the state has responded to feds’ temporary bans by dropping an agreement to spare wolves radio-collared for scientific research. Last year, roughly half of the wolf population of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve were shot from helicopters when they left park boundaries, including the entire Lost Creek pack, which had been studied by Park Service biologists for 20 years.

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