City Wilds

Bill Sherwonit





It’s time, once more, to speak on behalf of Alaska’s wildlife, particularly those wild animals that inhabit the Anchorage area and Chugach State Park, but also some residing in other parts of the state. I suppose you could consider this an update on several wildlife issues I’ve written about in 2020.

I’ll start with this: the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation too easily defers to the Alaska Board of Game (BOG) and Department of Fish and Game (F&G) when it comes to the killing of Chugach’s wildlife.

Case in point, No. 1: the new black bear hunt in McHugh Creek valley. As reported in previous City Wilds columns, that hunt has been opposed by Chugach State Park’s superintendent and its citizens advisory board, as well as many local residents. Yet state parks director Ricky Gease not only worked with F&G to make an “experimental” hunt happen, he deceived the board and public in doing so.

In response to my criticisms of his actions, Gease recently wrote a commentary for the Press to “lay out a few facts” about the hunt. His explanation completely ignores the central issues. First, the hunt was requested to provide additional hunting opportunities, NOT for public safety reasons; and 80 percent of the park is already open to black bear hunting, so why is any new hunt needed? Second, the hunt has been opposed by staff, advisory board, and the public, so why push for it? And third, Gease publicly lied.

The fact that numerous restrictions have been placed on hunters is in the end irrelevant, because the hunt should never have happened.

Gease adds insult to injury when he writes, “Our division’s actions in crafting and implementing a limited and targeted hunt that respects multiple uses of the park were considered, responsible, legal and proper.” His actions may have been legal, but Gease clearly acted improperly while shirking his responsibilities to park staff, the advisory board and the larger public.

Gease then ends with this: “That they (park managers) are unfairly criticized and abused by those who don’t always get their way is disappointing.” In response I would say my criticisms have been both fair and accurate. And as for abuse, Gease’s actions are a classic example of abuse of power. Perhaps more importantly, he abused the public’s trust.

Enough said about that.

Next, the trapping of lynx in Chugach State Park.

As I recounted in early October, two groups and a local attorney this fall sent a petition to the state seeking to extend a closure of lynx trapping that began in 2004 (for more details, see the City Wilds column “Petition aims to protect lynx in Chugach State Park”).

On Oct. 12, the state issued a response. Not surprisingly, Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Eddie Grasser rejected the petition, on the grounds that the BOG “has the authority to set hunting and trapping regulations in the state of Alaska.”

What Grasser ignores is that this authority has limitations. This is most clearly evident on some of Alaska’s federal lands, for instance national parks and wildlife refuges, which prohibit certain hunting and trapping practices allowed elsewhere in the state. But it is also true in Chugach State Park.

As the state’s then assistant attorney general, Tom Meacham, explained way back in 1978, “It is thus clear that, according to statute, the Department of Fish and Game is required to cooperate with the Department of Natural Resources to achieve the management purposes specified by the Legislature for Chugach Park.” Furthermore, the park’s primary purposes include this one: “to provide areas for the public display of local wildlife.” Nothing is mentioned about hunting and trapping.

If they wanted to do so, state parks director Ricky Gease and Chugach superintendent Kurt Hensel could oppose lynx trapping or at least make a case why it shouldn’t be allowed. From past experience, we already know that Gease all too willingly defers to F&G. Given that, it likely doesn’t matter what Hensel would prefer.

While that’s not exactly a shock, here’s something that both surprised and disappointed me: the petitioners seeking the continued closure of lynx trapping asked Chugach’s citizens advisory board to issue a resolution in support of the petition, but the CAB hardly discussed that request at its October meeting and took no action. Yet it did give F&G considerable time to make its case for a reopening of lynx trapping in the park.

And here’s something that saddens me even more: both the new black bear hunt and the renewed lynx trapping benefit only a few people. In his letter denying the petition, Grasser himself admits that when trapping has been allowed in the park, only a small number of lynx have been taken. And only one or two black bears (if any) are likely to be killed in McHugh Creek valley during this year’s hunt. Why defer to a small number of trappers and hunters in Chugach State Park when they have plenty of opportunities outside the park and the large majority of Anchorage area residents would prefer the animals be protected?

The answer, of course, is that the BOG only serves the interest of hunters, trappers, and big-game guides. If the interests of the larger public are to be considered, other land managers must make their voices heard—and they, in turn, must consider the perspectives and attitudes of the larger public. All too often, that doesn’t happen.

Still, there are times when the public’s voice is strong enough that it does have an impact. So here’s some good news for those Anchorage area residents and other Alaskans who care about the wellbeing of our state’s wildlife and wish to ensure that, where it’s allowed, hunting of animals is done in a humane and ethical way.

As I reported in a July City Wilds column (“Another Alaskan debacle: brown bear baiting in a wildlife refuge”), under Donald Trump’s direction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering several management changes within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, including new rules that would allow hunters to kill brown bears at bait stations, a practice that a large majority of people—including many hunters—consider both unethical and abhorrent.

In response to substantial public pushback, the FWS has reopened its comment period, which now runs through November 9. It has also scheduled a “virtual” (Zoom) public hearing on Monday, October 26. To learn more about the issue I would direct you to both my City Wilds column and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance website (www.akwildlife.org). The latter will also provide information and links for those who would like to comment and/or participate in the public hearing. Pre-registration is required for the hearing (try https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJIlf-mtqzgoEtT6MewbUtgR_J4auktWbtKH or go to the Alaska Wildlife Alliance website for help).

Finally—and here’s more encouraging news—actions are being taken to protect Southeast Alaska wolves in response to a horrific overkill of Prince of Wales Island wolves last winter by hunters and trappers (which I reported in the Anchorage Press last April, “State mismanages human kill of Southeast Alaska wolves”).

Three conservation/environmental groups have filed a petition to get these so-called Alexander Archipelago wolves protected through the Endangered Species Act. And the group Alaskans FOR Wildlife has successfully appealed that the September opening of Prince of Wales wolves be delayed until at least Nov. 1, or whenever an updated wolf population estimate has been completed. Presumably the season would be canceled entirely if wolf numbers are too low.

The effort to protect Alaska’s wildlife and ensure they are properly and ethically managed continues. Stay tuned for what’s to come.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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