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Kenai: A wildlife refuge in name only?

The Hill logo The Hill 8/5/2020 Jamie Rappaport Clark and Geoffrey L. Haskett, opinion contributors
a lake with a mountain in the background: Kenai: A wildlife refuge in name only? © Getty Images Kenai: A wildlife refuge in name only?

Alaska's Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has weathered many storms in the last 80 years. Its 2 million acres of forests and wetlands southeast of Anchorage are regularly wracked by natural cataclysms such as fires that can dwarf Lower 48 events. Our organizations have fought for years to protect this amazing refuge and its wildlife populations, but now a human-made disaster is in the works.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency responsible for overseeing these lands, has ignored its science and caved to D.C. political appointees and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG). A proposed regulation will completely alter the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Hunting and trapping framework by allowing the baited killing of brown bears and removing several critical trapping requirements.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge contains more than 1.35 million acres of designated wilderness. Two hours outside of Anchorage, Kenai is Alaska's most visited refuge. Its hundreds of miles of hiking and canoe trails, campgrounds and wilderness cabins complement a wildlife ensemble that supports over a million visitors annually, including thousands of Alaskans.

For decades, Kenai has been the epicenter of the competing ideologies of the FWS and ADFG. The primary purpose of the refuge set out in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), is "to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity." This purpose stands in stark contrast with ADFG's drive to support its hunting constituency by allowing the aggressive killing of predator species such as bears and wolves and the promotion of prey species such as moose.

In the 1980s, FWS eventually acceded to repeated ADFG demands and adopted a state regulation that allowed hunters in the refuge to shoot black bears over bait. Now ADFG, with support from the Trump administration and Alaska's congressional delegation, wants to expand Kenai bear-baiting to kill brown bears lured into "bait stations" of old fruit, donuts, dog food, and garbage.

The state of Alaska also wants the wildlife refuge to abolish the requirement for federal trapping permits that were critical to the refuge's 2007 determination that trapping is legally compatible with refuge purposes. That determination stated that absent the permit conditions, "trapping may not be compatible" on the refuge. Permit conditions now targeted for elimination include an orientation course for first-time trappers, trap ownership identification, trap-check requirements, no-trap safety zones within one mile of campgrounds, trailheads, roads, and visitor facilities, and the prohibition against site-bait (visible bait) which will threaten "non-target species" like bald eagles and other raptors, magpies, moose and pet dogs.

A statewide poll in 2018 clearly showed most Alaskans oppose killing female black bears and cubs in their dens, using bait stations to kill bears and killing wolves, coyotes, and pups in dens. Some of these practices were once illegal in Alaska. But a 1994 Intensive Management Law directs Alaska Board of Game to identify moose and caribou populations to be managed for high human harvest and ADFG to develop regulations to maximize hunting opportunities. And now, killing brown bears is seen by the state of Alaska as a targeted way of reducing moose predation and human conflicts while increasing hunting opportunity. Promoting bear-baiting on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge exposes the hypocrisy of ADFG, whose own public statement correctly notes, "keeping bears away from human food is perhaps the most important thing we can do to prevent conflicts and confrontations between bears and people."

Hunting, currently occurring on over half of the 568 units in the National Wildlife Refuge System, is allowed where it's compatible with a refuge's primary wildlife conservation purpose. However, bear-baiting is the antithesis of "fair chase." It also threatens visitor safety on Kenai refuge as the largest trophy bears are killed, leaving others to roam with their newly-acquired taste for doughnuts and dog food. Bait hunting makes killing bears easy, with dire population consequences for brown bears on the refuge.

National wildlife refuges are special places where, by law, wildlife come first. We need to stand together to repudiate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed regulations developed on behalf of a small group of special interests and return management of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to its rightful owners, the American people.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. She previously served as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997-2001. During her tenure as director, Clark established 27 new refuges and added 2 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Geoffrey L. Haskett is the president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. He previously served as Regional Director for the Alaska Region - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2006-2015.

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