If Congressional Republicans get their way, it could once again be legal to kill wolves and bears in Alaska's wildlife refuges. The latest casualty of the Congressional Review Act could be a US Fish and Wildlife Service rule that prohibits the wholesale killing of predators on wildlife refuges in Alaska. Already, the CRA has been used to overturn stream protections and fossil fuel industry transparency.
Until September of last year, it was entirely legal for hunters to bait bears and wolves, to poison them, to shoot them from helicopters, and even to gas dens full of cubs—all an attempt to inflate moose and caribou populations, which are prized game for trophy hunters. Then, amid growing public concern, the USFWS finalized a rule prohibiting the Alaska Board of Game's "intensive predator management" practices, as they were called, from being used on national wildlife refuges—public lands in the US set aside to conserve plants and wildlife.
The USFWS, tasked with taking care of these federally owned wildlife refuges, argued that their job is to maintain the natural diversity of these lands and that doing so means supporting viable populations of apex predators—key components of a healthy ecosystem.
"People say, 'Oh we have to protect the wolf puppies.' That's not what it's about."
"Intensive predator management," said then-USFWS Director Dan Ashe in a Huffington Post op-ed, "is purportedly aimed at increasing populations of caribou and moose but defies modern science of predator-prey relationships."
Congressional Republicans, led by Don Young from Alaska, assert that the rule is a power grab by the federal government and it takes away the state's right to manage game within its borders.
In a hearing this week, Young spoke animatedly about what he saw as government overreach and liberal hooplah. "There have been a lot of interest groups that have been spreading falsehoods and dishonesty about this," he said. "They talk about killing puppies and grizzly bears. That doesn't happen."
"People say, 'Oh we have to protect the wolf puppies'," Young continued. "That's not what it's about. It's about the law."
Young and other Republicans say that the rule is illegal because it violates the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, which allows rural Alaskans to continue commercial and subsistence hunting on the approximately 76 million acres of wildlife refuges within its borders.
Conservationists, Democrats, and the USFWS counter that ANILCA is exactly why the rule must stay in effect. The first purpose for all refuges under ANILCA, argued the federal agency, is to "conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity."
That includes predators.
"We saw when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park that they kept elk herds under control and on the run, allowing river corridors to recover from decades of being trampled and overgrazed," Democratic Representative from Arizona and ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Raúl M. Grijalva, told Motherboard.
In the hearing, representatives in favor of the rule pointed out that healthy predators not only make healthy ecosystems, but also bring in large sums from wildlife viewing. "Alaska gains $2 billion for wildlife viewing—which is five times what it gets from hunting," said Democratic Representative Don Beyer from Virginia.
With a swipe of the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to void a rule within 60 congressional days of its implementation, the rule protecting predators on wildlife refuges in Alaska could be overturned. Once that happens, a law like it cannot be brought forth by the USFWS ever again. Whether the Senate has the stomach to take up this vote remains to be seen.
"The idea that a state should be able to veto federal rules on US public lands owned by all Americans is patently absurd," said Rep. Grijalva, warning, "If we let this happen in Alaska, people living in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and other states that value public lands should be very afraid."
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