Conservation Wildlife Management

Alaska Aims to Regain Wildlife Management Authority from Feds on Kenai National Refuge

The state is looking to allow bear baiting in the refuge
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Brown bear.
A bear stalks through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. James Hager via Getty Images

Alaska has been in a tug-of-war with federal agencies over wildlife management for decades. In the most recent struggle, the state asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 5 to reconsider a previous decision and return wildlife management decisions in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to local agencies.

Specifically, the state is asking the federal government to “direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with ANILCA and allow the State to manage the methods and means of hunting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge,” according to a press release from the State of Alaska department of Law.

This dispute between the State of Alaska and the USFWS stems from an Obama administration policy that banned several common and traditional hunting practices—namely the ban on hunting brown or grizzly bears with the aid of bait on more 6 million acres of federal refuge and preserve lands.

The policy got plenty of spin and national attention when Congress invalidated the statewide baiting ban the following year, resetting the regulations to where they had been. So, the baiting ban was lifted in most places, but not on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Most of Alaska’s national wildlife refuges are open to a variety of hunting, and the USFWS has maintained the restriction on hunting brown bears with the use of bait on the Kenai Wildlife Refuge.

The recent appeal to the 9th Circuit Court is in response to a decision upholding the federal regulations by Judge Ronald Gould, who is quoted in an article from Alaska Public Media: “Not only do the cited legal principles and laws tell us that federal law has primacy over federal lands, but also common sense tells us the same,” Gould wrote. “The federal government, and not a single state, has control over federal lands which benefit the entire country.”

The point of contention is that according to ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) and rights granted at statehood give the state of Alaska the right to manage its own wildlife—including ways and means of hunting—whether on federal land or not.

“Federal employees living in D.C. should not control how Alaskans hunt,” said the Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang.

Many Alaskans view these regulations as just another attempt by the Federal agencies to subvert the state of Alaska’s management of its resources. Regulations and policy are often crafted by federal appointees—not elected officials. For example, the Federal Subsistence Board which consists of regional agency heads and appointees has also been at odds with state of Alaska game managers. In 2022, they closed millions of acres of federal public lands to non-local caribou and moose hunters despite strong state opposition.

“Any attempt to legislate through policy by unelected officials sets a dangerous precedent to all states,” said Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy in a press release. “We hope the entire Ninth Circuit will hear this case and see the error in the panel’s initial decision that failed to recognize that Congress has left these issues to the states.”

The Reality of Baiting Brown Bears in Alaska

Baiting is a controversial hunting tactic in general, but baiting brown and grizzly bears is especially divisive. Even within the hunting community, many view baiting bears as an unfair practice, but it’s really not that simple. The truth is that hunting brown bears over bait is both a challenging practice and a valuable management tool.

I’ve been hunting grizzly bears over bait in interior Alaska for nearly a decade. The tactic has slowly found acceptance and been legalized in more areas over the past 15 years. Common arguments against it suggest that it’s too easy, or that the bear doesn’t have a fair chance of escape. Neither of these arguments could be further from the truth. In-fact, most hunters who target brown or grizzly bears with baits of their own are unsuccessful.

In my personal experience, it takes a persistent effort and often weeks to get a shot at a mature grizzly bear on a bait site—and I hunt in interior Alaska with a longer season and 24-hour daylight. In speaking with hunters who I know on the Kenai Peninsula, it sounds like things can be even more difficult in that region. Brown bears are smart animals, and many of the bears hunters would like to take are nocturnal.

Despite being a challenge, baiting is an effective tool for game managers because it can allow harvest of bears in areas that are difficult or impossible to hunt effectively in a spot-and-stalk manner. Plus, hunters can be especially selective, choosing to only shoot mature male bears. A bait site often presents the hunter with the time and conditions to field judge a bear accurately and determine sex, and then make an ethical shot.