There have been two different attacks on wildlife management direction on the Kenai Refuge. Both aimed at overthrowing parts of the 2016 “Kenai Rule” which formalized many long standing management practices on the Refuge. One is a lawsuit by Safari Club and the State of Alaska against the Department of the Interior (Fish & Wildlife Service) seeking to overthrow aspects of the Kenai Regulations on the grounds they were not compatible with state regulations. The second is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own attempt to revise the Kenai Regulations to conform to state practices under pressure from the State and DOI.
1. The lawsuit was settled in Fish & Wildlife’s favor on all counts except shooting within the Kenai River Corridor which was sent back for further documentation. On November 13, 2020, the Federal District Court in Anchorage ruled against the State of Alaska and Safari Clubs International and upheld the 2016 Kenai Refuge regulations that prohibit the hunting of brown bears over bait and require management of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area for wildlife viewing and education. See Trustees Press Release HERE. The decision confirms that the Fish and Wildlife Service necessarily has the authority to manage wildlife on lands it oversees and to set management priorities within Refuges even if it conflicts with State priorities. Friends and 15 other conservation organizations intervened on behalf of the DOI to secure this major victory and were represented by Trustees for Alaska.
2. Overwhelming public comment opposed DOI’s attempt to change the Kenai Refuge Regulations. Over 45,000 individual comments were submitted to FWS during the two public comment periods on the proposed revisions to the Kenai Refuge regulations. 68 testified verbally at a two night virtual public meeting at the end of October. Only four testified in favor of the regulation change. All others were opposed.
3. Since the comment period closed November 9, we have been waiting to hear. We understand that Washington officials feverously pushed to complete the required analysis of this massive number of comments in hopes of ramming through the regulations prior to the change in administration.
What is the Issue?
The State of Alaska in the past decade has not been happy with some aspects of the Kenai Refuge’s management of game animals. The State contends that the State should have all authority. In the lawsuit brought in 2016 by the State with the Safari Club against the Fish & Wildlife Service, the State sought to overturn the refuge regulations banning brown bear hunting over bait, management of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area for wildlife viewing and photography with a prohibition on trapping and general hunting and prohibiting shooting in the Kenai and Russian River Corridor much of the year.
The proposed regulation changes brought forth by Fish & Wildlife Service under pressure from the State and a sympathetic Department of the Interior sought to accomplish some of those same goals – opening the refuge to brown bear hunting and allowing shooting most of the year in the Kenai River corridor. In addition, the proposed changes would remove all Refuge control of trapping. The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area management was not part of the proposed regulation changes however.
These changes would seriously weaken refuge regulations that were developed through extensive public processes and agreements with the state that cover 40 years. Brown bears, trapping, visitor access, and public safety on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge would be affected.
The proposed regulations were released in June 2020 with a comment period that closed in August without a public hearing.Over 34,000 comments were received, in addition to tens of thousands of petition signers. Friends as well as other conservation groups requested a public hearing and that request was granted.
Two nights of hearings were held in October and an additional 30 day comment period ended November 9.
The conflict between State and Refuge wildlife management that led to this stems from the different mandates of the two agencies. Federal laws and regulations require National Wildlife Refuges to be managed for natural biodiversity and a balance of predators and prey. The State mandate of maximum sustained yield of species such as moose and caribou is the justification for their predator control programs, especially killing bears and wolves. In contrast to the State, Refuges must also consider user conflicts, such as trappers vs. hikers with dogs and hunters vs. wildlife viewers and recreationists.
The Proposed Regulations
Proposed Changes would replace the Refuge trappingregulations with the less restrictive State regulations. The Refuge trapping regulations were developed in the 1980s in response to trapping abuses under State management such as dogs and eagles caught in traps, traps left out after the close of the season, traps along popular trails and roads, no accountability because traps were not marked, traps that were rarely checked leaving animals to suffer, and overharvest of some species. The Refuge would not be allowed to manage trapping on the Refuge. Under State Management these changes to trapping on the Refuge would occur:
Eliminate the no-trap buffers around trailheads, campgrounds, refuge roads, and visitor facilities (Ski Hill Road) which protected visitors and dogs
Eliminate the requirement to regularly check traps which minimized undue suffering and facilitated release of non-target animals, such as moose, bear, and eagles
Eliminate the requirement to hidebait from view which protected eagles and other birds of prey
Eliminate the special provisions which prevented overharvest of lynx, fox, marten, and beaver
Eliminate prohibition of toothed-leg hold traps which reduced suffering and facilitated release of non-target species
Eliminate Trapper Orientation, trap marking and a Refuge trapping permit which ensured accountability and established best practices
All of these safeguards would be eliminated under State management of trapping. The new rule will apply to all of the Refuge, except the Skilak Recreation Area which has its own set of rules.
Proposed Changes include brown bear hunting over bait. Hunters would be allowed to use human food to lure bears to bait stations up the Swanson River Road. This would endanger visitors and oil field workers as only the largest bear to visit the bait station will be killed, leaving other bears to roam with their newly-acquired taste for doughnuts and cooking oil. This would be a trophy hunt only as hunters are not required to utilize the meat of brown bears.
Other provisions of the Proposed Changes open the Russian and Kenai River corridors to shooting from November 1 to May 1. This would benefit bear hunters at the expense of late season fishermen and watchable wildlife viewers. Other provisions of the proposed changes would allow bicycles, game carts, and ATVs on some roads, trails, and lakes.
You can read our five page letter submitted during the comment period on the proposed regulations which details our positions and reasoning.
We are opposed to hunting brown bear over bait because it is incompatible with the purposes of the refuge, would have significant impacts on a unique brown bear population that is already under threat, and creates human safety issues.
We are opposed to having the State take over trapping management on the refuge. State trapping management is incompatible with the purposes of the Refuge because it does not safeguard species at risk, protect birds of prey, minimize unintended take and animal suffering, protect visitors and their pets, and require accountability from trappers.
We believe the Environmental Assessment is flawed, and does not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Alaska Lands Act (ANILCA), and the Refuge Improvement Act. The required Compatibility Determinations were not completed for trapping. We believe that preparation of a full Draft Environmental Impact Statement is required for changes of this magnitude.
We joined the lawsuit as intervenors because we are opposed to hunting brown bear over bait as explained above, and we support the Refuge's management of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area for wildlife viewing and photography. We are opposed to opening the Skilak area to trapping and general hunting.