H.J. Res. 69 Seeks to Undo Wildlife Protections

Senators will vote on whether to repeal the US Fish and Wildlife Final Rule, which prevents intensive hunting techniques on National Wildlife Refuges.

Audubon Alaska sent this letter to all United States Senators urging them to vote no on H.J. Res. 69, which would use the Congressional Review Act to repeal the US Fish and Wildlife Final Rule regarding Non-Subsistence Take of Wildlife and Public Participation and Closure Procedures on National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.

March 14, 2017

Dear Senator,

We urge you to vote no on H. J. Res. 69; please do not to use the Congressional Review Act to rescind the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s final rule regarding Non-Subsistence Take of Wildlife, Public Participation, and Closure Procedures, on National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska (FWS Rule).

The State of Alaska’s wildlife management program targets drastic reductions to apex predators like bears and wolves, and this intensive management program operates even on federal National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. The FWS Rule addresses this discrepancy by preventing the intensive hunting techniques from operating on Refuges, and in the process the Rule reduces the risk to ecosystem function on these lands set aside for conservation. Recent research has clearly documented the valuable ecological role that apex predators play in ecosystem dynamics (Terborgh and Estes 2010). Intense reductions of apex predators like brown/grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves can have a rippling effect through an ecosystem, impacting other wildlife, vegetation, and birds. Repealing this Rule would have far-reaching impacts to Alaska wildlife, the integrity of our nation’s public lands, and the future of our National Wildlife Refuge System.

Federal wildlife agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service, traditionally work closely with State wildlife agencies and defer to State management of resident fish and wildlife. This cooperation has for decades been a hallmark of both state and federal history, policies, and practices. However, when Federal and State statutes and policies diverge, as they recently have in Alaska, the FWS and NPS must manage the lands under their jurisdiction in accordance with their legal mandates of the National Wildlife Refuge System and National Parks and Preserves.

In response to the conflict over wildlife management practices on Preserves and Refuges, the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service promulgated regulatory changes in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Earlier this year, the State of Alaska sued the Department of Interior to enjoin both these rules. Today, owing to the fact that only the FWS rule falls into the Congressional Review Act “look back” period, Congress is considering erasing the FWS Rule, which embodies important protections for Alaska’s natural ecosystems and wildlife.

The intensive predator control program in Alaska should not operate on Refuge land.

The State of Alaska currently manages its wildlife using an intensive management predator control process, with the ostensible goal of artificially boosting ungulate populations for human consumption. However, there is no evidence that an intensive predator control program will actually achieve this goal. Furthermore, while intensive predator management could conceivably be appropriate within some land designations, after undergoing proper testing and vetting, it has no place on our National Wildlife Refuges, which are lands set aside for the purpose of conserving wildlife in their natural diversity.

The State’s wildlife program is based on the principle of sustained yield, “the achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of the ability to support a high level of human harvest of game” (Alaska Statute (AS) 16.05.255(j)(5)). Alaska State law (AS 16.05.255) prioritizes human consumptive use of ungulates—specifically moose and caribou—and is known as the Intensive Management (IM) statute. The Alaska Board of Game (BOG) adopted regulations under the IM statute that require targeted reductions of wolf, black bear, and brown bear. Under 5 AAC 92.106-5 AAC 92.127, the State authorizes activities including aerial shooting of wolves or bears by State agency personnel, trapping of wolves by paid contractors, taking wolves and coyotes during the denning season, allowing under permit same-day airborne hunting of wolves and bears by the public, and allowance under permit for the take of any black or brown bear by baiting or snaring (5 AAC 92). Using these un-sportsman-like methods to pursue predators when they are most vulnerable, during the breeding season or in response to bait, has a targeted effect intended to eradicate bears and wolves. Similar methods have long been phased out, and frowned upon, in other states.

The ethics of targeting keystone predators during vulnerable parts of their life history bears due consideration. But even the utility of these methods to achieve the State’s goal of boosted prey populations is scientifically questionable. To the lay person, it might at first glance seem obvious that, if predator numbers are reduced, prey populations will increase; but predator-prey interactions are not that simple. Prey numbers are also influenced by weather and habitat quality, primarily food quality and abundance. Thus, prey taken by a predator might have died anyway from other causes. In that case, killing the predator will have no effect on the presence of the prey, and therefore on the human hunter’s harvest. In addition, alternative stable states - a low equilibrium with low populations of both predators and prey and a high equilibrium with more dense populations of both predators and prey - sometimes exist in predator and prey population dynamics. Owing to these complexities, analysis of the consequences of predator control activities is more difficult than is commonly assumed.

To respond to both the ethics of predator control, and to help address the scientific uncertainty, in late 1994 then Alaska governor Tony Knowles suspended the state’s wolf control program and asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to undertake a scientific and economic review of management of wolves and bears in Alaska. In its report (Wolves, Bears, and their Prey in Alaska) the NAS’s committee (called the National Research Council (NRC)), synthesized what was known about the biological impacts of wolf and bear management in Alaska with particular emphasis on the ability to predict the outcomes of predator control activities and to interpret the results (NRC 1997). The NRC had access to a large amount of information about the design and outcomes of predator control activities. The resulting report from the NRC indicated no definitive evidence that reducing predator populations has any real effect on prey populations. The connection between the State of Alaska’s intensive management program and its goal of increasing prey populations for human consumption still does not have a solid basis in scientific fact.

Impacts to Alaska’s wildlife

Instead, intensive management risks negative impacts to wildlife populations and ecosystems. It is unlikely that Alaska’s apex predators—including wolves, brown bears, and black bears—will be at significant risk in the short-term because of Alaska’s large expanses of undeveloped and unfragmented landscapes. However, there are some localized concerns where increasing human develop and recreation, in combination with intensive management of predators to increase ungulates, are exerting more pressure on these predators. The Kenai Peninsula in south central Alaska is of particular concern where brown bear seasons and harvest levels have expanded and hunting over bait has been authorized. In addition, the Alaska Board of Game (BOG) recently authorized aerial wolf control for the Kenai Peninsula. Although no predator species is likely to be extirpated on the Kenai, the relatively small, isolated population of brown bears could be significantly reduced below historical abundance and this change in abundance may have unanticipated impacts—including trophic cascades—on the larger ecosystem.

The removal of large predators can have a marked impact across an ecosystem. In south coastal regions of Alaska, brown bears may be considered a keystone species because of their importance as a major disperser of marine derived nutrients—in the form of Pacific salmon. (Gende et al. 2002). For example, salmon carcasses represent a significant food source for a variety of scavengers that feed on the carcasses abandoned by bears in the riparian area (Cederholm et al. 2000, Gende et al. 2002, Schindler et al. 2003). In addition, nutrients from carcasses and bear scat also leach into the forest soil and are taken up by riparian plants, including trees (Ben-David et al. 1998, Hilderbrand et al. 1999, Helfield and Naiman 2001). It is clear that the inter-relationships among salmon, bears, riparian vegetation, and a variety of other organisms are complex and critically important to the integrity of these productive ecosystems.

Recent ecological studies have demonstrated the fundamental importance of apex predators in stabilizing ecosystems (Terborgh and Estes 2010, Ripple et al. 2010, Ripple and Beschta 2006). Based on these and other studies, Ripple et al. (2010) concluded that “…the removal or significant reduction of large predators sets in motion a chain of events that initiates a downward spiral toward ecosystem simplification.” Because research strongly suggest that apex predators regulate ecosystem structure and functioning (Estes et al. 2011; Ripple et al. 2014; Kuijper et al. 2016), it would make sense for Alaska to carefully evaluate the role of apex predators prior to implementing intensive management programs broadly across all management jurisdictions of the state. It also
makes sense that, while the State should undergo such an assessment, these practices should not continue on lands set aside for wildlife in their natural diversity.

Far-reaching impacts to public lands and National Wildlife Refuge System

The legal purposes behind the creation of National Wildlife Refuges are clearly incompatible with the purposes of the State’s intensive management practices. Three statutes provide the legal framework for managing National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska: The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA; 16 U.S.C. 3111-3126); the National Wildlife Administration Act of 1966 (Administration Act) as amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (Improvement Act) (16 U.S.C. 668dd-ee); and the 1964 Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131-1136). Under ANILCA, each refuge in Alaska has a list of purposes for which it was established, including the first-listed purpose to “conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity” and all other purposes are to be consistent with this first purpose; ‘natural diversity’ emphasizes the importance of maintaining the flora and fauna within each refuge in a healthy, natural condition. The Improvement Act requires that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the NWR System be maintained for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. Under the Improvement Act, FWS policy requires that management actions restore or mimic natural ecosystem processes or functions to achieve refuge purposes. Within those Refuges containing designated wilderness, the FWS must also manage its land consistent with The Wilderness Act which states that wilderness “is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The FWS wilderness stewardship policy directs that FWS will not manipulate ecosystem processes, specifically including predator/prey fluctuations, in wilderness areas unless “necessary to accomplish the purposes of the refuge, including Wilderness Act purposes, or in cases where these processes become unnatural.” Intensive management practices are in direct conflict with the purposes for which the lands were set aside in the first place. Allowing these practices to continue calls into question the integrity of our Refuges across the nation.

Hunting and fishing are cherished parts of Alaska’s way of life. There is no doubt that hunting must and will continue to be allowed on federal lands in Alaska, including National Wildlife Refuges. Alaskans are fortunate to have access to world-class hunting and fishing literally right outside their back doors. But continuing to enjoy this natural bounty requires mindful defense of public lands and natural wildlife populations. The FWS Rule does not stop hunting on Refuges; it simply halts very specific practices that put our healthy wildlife populations at risk. Indeed, maintaining healthy, natural populations as required by the Federal statutes actually helps ensure that hunting, and the traditional subsistence use of wildlife, will continue in perpetuity.

Even if reasonable minds could differ on the benefit of the FWS Rule, the Congressional Review Act is an improper and irresponsible tool to resolve regulatory disputes. The State of Alaska has administrative and judicial avenues at its disposal for continuing to argue its perspective on this issue. By contrast, legislative use of the CRA shuts down public discussion on this and “substantially similar” rules in the future, and could throw an already complex area of federal law into an unworkable knot. Adding a hasty layer of law onto federal wildlife jurisdiction is not the way to proceed with resolving this nuanced conflict.

There are numerous reasons to vote “no” on H. J. R. 69: the Rule’s protections are scientifically justifiable; the Rule supports healthy wildlife populations and conservation lands; the Rule represents the integrity of our nation’s Refuges and public lands; and the Congressional Review Act is a blunt tool in a complicated situation. Please consider these reasons and do not repeal the Fish and Wildlife Service rule regarding Non-Subsistence Take of Wildlife, Public Participation, and Closure Procedures, on National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.

Susan Culliney
Policy Director
Audubon Alaska

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