Comment Period Extended on Refuge Predator Hunting Rules

Proposed changes to predator hunting regulations on refuges in Alaska, including the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, are bringing several arguments to bear — or wolf, or coyote, for that matter.

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One is the different management strategies of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game, which prioritize managing game populations for sustained harvestable, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages for natural biological diversity.

On the Kenai Peninsula, that debate centers on the moose population, which is doing better in some areas than others, but overall has seen decades of decline. The Board of Game, along with instituting moose hunting restrictions, has liberalized hunting opportunities on predators — including increasing the harvest limit and allowing baiting for brown bears, as well as conducting an aerial wolf control program in area 15A.

The proposed regulation revision would ban predator hunting methods deemed “particularly effective,” including trapping bears, baiting brown bears, aerial hunting of bears, wolves or wolverine, and hunting wolves and coyotes during their denning season. Subsistence hunting would be exempted.

Most of the rule changes wouldn’t have any effect on the Kenai refuge, since most those methods and means are already restricted. But as Monte Roberts, a member of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, testified at a public comment session at the refuge visitors center Feb. 16, it would preclude those methods from ever becoming possibilities.

Roberts: “All these proposed rule changes are just taking tools away. Maybe they don’t need to be used right now, but taking them away at a federal level, they never, ever come back.”

Thirteen people testified at the meeting, seven in favor and six opposed. Nancy Hillstrand, calling in from Seldovia, spoke in support of natural diversity.

Hillstrand: “To manage strictly by sustained yield for human harvest is damaging to the very fabric of diversity that has taken tens of millions of years to form. We are so blessed to have this opportunity to allow the scientific workings of nature, and let her function as she has quite capably performed for millennium without a manmade scheme like forced intensive management.”

Kaitlin Vadla, of Clam Gulch, also advocated letting nature do its thing.

Vadla: “I think that moose populations and other populations of animals fluctuate. Humans don’t know everything. And I think to manage for entire system health is a smarter and more conservative way to manage this refuge and all refuges in the state of Alaska.”

Dave Blossom, of Kasilof, said that refuge restrictions on predator hunting weren’t managing for biological diversity, because the moose population is suffering.

Blossom: “I think you guys are already favoring the bears and the wolves on the Kenai Peninsula, and you’re doing so at the detriment of the moose population. And it’s going to start carrying over to caribou and sheep and other things, as well. When you talk about managing for biological diversity, you cannot say that you are doing it because you are not paying any attention to the lack of moose in your refuge.”

What’s to blame for the peninsula’s moose population decline is another area of debate. Some speakers, including Ed Schmitt, of Soldotna, pointed to limited habitat and a lack of browse.

Schmitt: “While at a superficial level it is appealing to think that killing predators would lead to more prey, but, in reality, it is an expensive diversion from dealing with the real problem. The Board of Game would be far better off addressing the critical issue, which is habitat degradation by the increasing human population.

Blossom, though, cited wildland fires in Units 15B and C, in the Tustumena Lake, Caribou Hills and southern peninsula, saying that browse isn’t lacking in those areas.

Blossom: “We have a predator problem. Nothing else is killing the cows and the calves but predators.”

Ted Spraker, chair of the Board of Game, speaking for himself, said he’s particularly worried about a regulation revision that would make it easier to enact hunting closures, and for closures to last longer. The rule change adds “conservation of natural and biological diversity, biological integrity and environmental health,” to the criteria by which a closure can be enacted. Spraker said the wording could leave closures up to the arbitrary discretion of the refuge manager.

Spraker: “If he wakes up one day and decides that trophy hunting is not compatible with refuge mandates. There’s a clear pathway here, under this proposed rule, that he could eliminate sheep hunting on this refuge. (And) brown bear hunting is similar.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was originally due March 8, but has been extended to April 7. Comments can be mailed or submitted online at www.regulations.gov by searching for the docket number, FWS–R7–NWRS–2014–0005, and clicking on “Comment now.”

— Jenny Neyman, KDLL