Why the U.S. government is allowing bears, wolves to be hunted in their dens
When wolf hunting season opened in Alaska on August 1, it became legal in many national preserves for hunters to kill nursing mothers in dens with their pups. In October, when black bear hunting season begins, females settling down for hibernation with cubs can be targeted in portions of Denali National Preserve and Gates of…
When wolf hunting season opened in Alaska on August 1, it became legal in many national preserves for hunters to kill nursing mothers in dens with their pups. In October, when black bear hunting season begins, females settling down for hibernation with cubs can be targeted in portions of Denali National Preserve and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve. And in spring, when cubs and their mothers emerge, they too will be legal game.
Other previously banned hunting practices—including baiting bears with doughnuts, popcorn, or other human food—also are allowed now in Alaska’s national preserves.
These practices aren’t new. Many have been permitted for years across tracts of wilderness in the state, and some have been used for centuries by Alaska natives. But on National Park Service-managed lands—including national preserves, national parks, and national monuments—federal law had prohibited the most controversial hunting techniques.
On June 9, however, a final rule issued by the National Park Service said that the United States government may no longer block hunters from using those methods in Alaska’s national preserves. According to the Park Service, this is meant to bring federal regulations more closely in line with state ones.
Alaskan officials so far have granted permission for these controversial methods only in certain national preserves, but the rule change opens up all 10 of the state’s preserves (a total land area about the size of South Carolina) to the option of allowing them.
The announcement drew criticism from scientists, wildlife managers, and animal advocates, who say the new rule allows cruelty to animals and undermines the National Park Service’s conservation mission.
“Allowing the killing of bear cubs and wolf pups is appalling and goes against a basic convention of good hunting—the fair chase,” says William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. “It’s not consistent with compassionate management in any way.” Fair chase, a code adopted by many hunting organizations, entails ethical and sportsmanlike pursuit of wild game by ensuring that an animal has a reasonable chance of escape.
But Alaska state officials see it differently. “We look at it as more of an alignment of regulations between the Park Service and the state,” says Eddie Grasser, director of the division of wildlife conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Ripple and others disagree with that interpretation. They acknowledge that the hunting rule change may not threaten Alaska’s overall populations of bears and wolves, but they express concern that it undermines the National Park Service’s mission to preserve and protect nature—not just in Alaska, but possibly throughout the U.S.
“This [rule] sets a dangerous precedent,” Ripple says. “It has implications for the potential exploitation of wildlife in federal protected areas of the lower 48 states.”
His concerns reflect those of many biologists and wildlife managers who fear that it could encourage other states to lobby the federal government to open their nationally protected areas to controversial practices inconsistent with federal policies.
“What about the potential for killing cougar kittens in federal preserves in the state of Utah?” Ripple says. “Or bobcats, coyotes, wolves, and bears? There’s all kinds of predators that live in preserves in the lower 48 states.”
Managed for hunters
Alaska’s wildlife legislation is unique in the United States, if not the world. The state’s Intensive Management Law of 1994 mandates that certain predator species be managed to ensure that populations of moose, caribou, and deer “remain large enough to allow for adequate and sustained harvest.” For many Alaskans, wild game is a vital food source, second only to fish. Subsistence users annually exploit an estimated 36.9 million pounds of wild foods, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.