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Trump administration moves to end a ban on Alaska hunting practices that many say are cruel

An Alaskan coastal brown bear rests in sedge. (Photo by Jessica Matthews for The Washington Post)

In a push to reverse yet another Obama-era regulation, the Trump administration moved Tuesday to strike rules that forbid hunting methods on federal land in Alaska that many scientists and conservationists call cruel and inhumane.

A proposed rule published by the National Park Service in the Federal Register would let Alaskan game officials decide whether bear cubs can be killed alongside their mothers, caribou can be shot from a boat while swimming, wolves, including pups, can be hunted in their dens and other animals can be targeted from airplanes and snowmobiles. Animals could also be baited with sweets and killed or poisoned.

The Park Service said its proposal is consistent with an order by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to accede to states’ wishes to  expand recreational hunting. “The purpose of this proposed rule is to align sport hunting regulations in national preserves in Alaska with State of Alaska regulations and to enhance consistency with harvest regulations on surrounding non-federal lands and waters,” officials wrote. “The proposed rule would apply the State of Alaska’s hunting regulations to national preserve lands, with limited exceptions.”

While Alaska regulations prohibit some of the federally banned practices in certain areas, it allows them in others. Under President Barack Obama, Interior argued that the state was allowing the more deadly techniques as part of an aggressive predator-control effort that threatened to disrupt the balance of wildlife in the wilderness.

But the state pushed back, saying the effects on the balance of wildlife “are likely negligible.” And its hunting regulations, according to officials, “are intended to provide opportunity for harvests of wolves, coyotes, bears, and other species as requested by the public.”

The Park Service proposal Tuesday comes as the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service begin reassessing rules on “various prohibitions that directly contradict State of Alaska authorizations and wildlife management decisions,” memos issued to each agency by an Interior official state. Critics have blasted this review, which was announced last July, as intended to reach predetermined results.

The agency also is planning an environmental assessment to determine the proposal’s impact on the wildlife population overall.

The public has two months to weigh in on the proposal before a public comment period closes July 23. Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation cheered the administration’s action while Democrats and conservationists condemned it.

Congress gave Alaska the authority to manage its fish and wildlife with three separate laws, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, noted in a statement. “This is clearly our right and our responsibility, and Alaskans take that very seriously. I thank the administration for recognizing this and working to properly align federal regulations.”

“This is a long-awaited and welcomed announcement from the National Park Service,” Rep. Don Young (R) said in the same statement. “I am pleased by this decision to correct an illegal Obama-era power grab.” 

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), co-chair of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, had a different reaction. “The Trump administration’s decision to roll back these sensible animal protections is outrageous. Without this ban, the hunting of bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens and the shooting of bears from airplanes will return,” he said. “Without wildlife, our national preserves are just scenery. These practices have no place on our public lands and in our society.”

The chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks said the proposed rule “sounds nothing like the Park Service I know.” Phil Francis, who’s also a retired park service employee with more than four decades of experience, said the agency is mandated to conserve wildlife under the law that established it, “not exploit it through these despicable hunting practices.You don’t have to be an avid hunter to know that killing bears with cubs in their dens or shooting swimming caribou from a moving motorboat are simply wrong.”

The National Parks Conservation Association called the proposal “a shocking reversal of common-sense wildlife management regulations in Alaska” and said brown-bear baiting at the Denali National Park and Preserve, Arctic National Park and Preserve and Noatak National Preserve would start immediately once the proposal is approved. Trapping wolves in dens during the season when they’re sleeping would start at the Katmai National Park and Preserve, the association said.

The group pointed to the Park Service’s failed attempts to negotiate with the state over hunting methods before proposing and finalizing the current rule. During that period, the Park Service in Alaska argued more than 60 times that the state’s hunting methods were inappropriate on federal land, said Jim Adams, the group’s Alaska director.

“Now, with this rule, the state can engage in an escalating war on wolves, bears and cubs to increase caribou herds for hunting,” Adams said. “It’s hard to imagine the Park Service on the ground being eager to push back on the state. Sport hunting … that’s what this is all about. The state is trying to empower hunters in as many ways as possible to reduce populations of predators.”

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