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The fight to protect Alaska's predators

The HSUS pushes to preserve U.S. Fish and wildlife rules that ban cruel hunting methods.

All Animals magazine, November/December 2016

by Karen E. Lange

Photo by Robert Olenick/All Canada Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Ed Schmitt, a retired surgeon, moved to Alaska to experience the wild. He left Colorado for the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, where he could fish in a river that flowed right outside his house and hunt, he says, in a way that respects wildlife and the environment. Schmitt enjoyed casting for salmon and seeing brown bears, also known as grizzly bears, fishing nearby. He never wanted to kill them. But over 25 years, development and new roads ate away bear habitat. And a different mentality from Schmitt’s, one that treats large predators as creatures to be eliminated so populations of moose and caribou can flourish, took its toll on the Kenai’s brown bears. Schmitt hasn’t seen one in three years.

“Most of us that live in Alaska are here because we recognized that it has something that the rest of the world doesn’t,” says Schmitt, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, which is working with The HSUS to protect animals from trophy hunting abuses. “The wildness can be destroyed by people. We’ve stopped seeing the wildlife because we’ve made it go away.” A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule released in August aims to preserve the state’s biodiversity by banning cruel and unsporting hunting methods on the 76 million acres of Alaska’s federal national wildlife refuges. (Last year, the National Park Service issued a similar rule for the more than 20 million acres of federal preserves within the state). Under the rule, supported by The HSUS and a network of scientists and local advocacy groups, hunters will no longer be able to bait brown bears, trap brown or black bears or use a plane to find bears from the air and then immediately land and shoot them. In addition, trophy hunters will not be allowed to kill black bear mothers and cubs or wolf and coyote mothers and pups in their dens (subsistence hunters are exempt). And “predator control” programs, which let hunters kill greater numbers of carnivores in the hope the populations of prey animals such as caribou will increase, won’t be permitted in national wildlife refuges.

“This is the first time the federal government has stood up to the state of Alaska’s brutal practices in 37 years,” says Wendy Keefover, HSUS native carnivore protection manager, who led meetings on the rule in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks to encourage constituents to speak out.

An HSUS poll in March showed a majority of Alaskans support these restrictions, and the Fish and Wildlife Service says most people who submitted comments favored the rule. The change came despite well- financed campaigns by the NRA and Safari Club International against it, and the opposition of the hunters, trappers and hunting guides on the state’s Board of Game, as well as Alaska’s representatives in Congress.

HSUS Alaska state director Michael Haukedalen says the number of residents who rallied to support the rule shows there’s a constituency for reform. “It’s not true that all Alaskans are OK with the state running rampant on public lands,” he says. “Only a minority of Alaskans are hunters, and even fewer kill animals just for a trophy.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, citizen ballot initiatives passed bans on cruel and unsporting hunting practices. However, these were later overridden by the state legislature and governor. In 1994, the legislature enacted a law requiring the state’s Department of Fish and Game to practice “intensive management” of predators if caribou, moose and deer populations dropped below certain levels.

For 10 years federal officials tried to negotiate with the Alaska Board of Game to protect wolves and bears from egregious hunting practices, says biologist Francis Mauer, retired from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

“It’s this ever-increasing fervor to kill predators in Alaska,” he says. “The federal agencies realized these hunting practices are inconsistent with the purpose for which the parks and reserves were established, and they had a responsibility to act.”

The fight against hunting abuses has now shifted to Washington, D.C., where Rep. Don Young (R-AK) got riders into House appropriations and energy bills that would undo both the Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service rules. Similar language was slipped into a Senate appropriations bill. The HSUS and other groups are encouraging Congress to reject these riders before sending the bills to the president.

Schmitt says he, like most hunters in Alaska, is appalled by the practices the Fish and Wildlife Service has banned. “The notion that people don’t want any rules is a myth. We want good rules, just like everybody else.”

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