Here’s a big “Hurrah!” for Chugach State Park’s Citizens Advisory Board (CAB). After considerable discussion and some passionate—and well reasoned—public testimony, the board voted overwhelmingly to formally request Alaska State Parks Director Ricky Gease to rescind his recent approval of a black bear hunt in the McHugh Creek drainage.
As previously reported in City Wilds, Gease approved the controversial new bear hunt in September without any board input, despite earlier assurances that he would wait until after the CAB (with feedback from the public) had a chance to fully discuss his new proposal for a restrictive “experimental” hunt and give its recommendation at the board’s October meeting.
Many of us who love the park and regularly recreate there considered Gease’s action to be a betrayal of trust and there’s been a push from the public to get him—or DNR Commissioner Corri Feige—to reverse the decision.
This takes things one step farther.
Gease attended Monday’s CAB meeting and explained that Department of Fish and Game officials had told him they needed to know whether the hunt was “a go or no-go” before Sept. 20, in order to include it in the state’s 2020 hunting regulations booklet, if approved. As Gease portrayed it, he was simply accommodating a “sister agency.” But he did so at the cost of going back on his word. It’s still unclear to me if that bothers him at all.
In public testimony, I pointed out that Gease’s primary obligations should be to Chugach park staff and the CAB, both of which are on record opposing any new black bear hunts. Furthermore, both the statute delegating management responsibilities within Chugach State Park and the park’s management plan make it clear that when there are conflicts, the Department of Fish and Game “shall cooperate” with park managers, not vice versa. Gease essentially flipped that relationship on its head.
Sitting through Gease’s explanation of his actions was an infuriating experience for many of us who came to testify; his rationale—excuses, really—did not pass the red-face test. The CAB’s initial discussion of the newly amended hunt regulations also proved frustrating. Why would the board spend time discussing amendments to an action that many of us in the audience believed to be dishonest, unethical, unacceptable?
Ultimately, however, the board got to the core of the issue. To her great credit, member Shannon Donovan expressed what many of us in the audience were thinking. At the September meeting, Donovan said, “We were told that if the board isn’t ready to vote [on the experimental hunt proposed by Gease], it would be tabled to the next meeting.” Gease’s actions, she continued, are “a breach of trust. To me this seems disingenuous.”
Donovan’s comments seemed to shift things. Eventually three other board members expressed strong concerns about the hunt and/or Gease’s actions. Claire LeClair even questioned whether both the proposed bear hunt and an existing moose hunt in McHugh Creek valley are even legal, given that they’re in areas of the park closed by regulation to the discharge of firearms. It’s my hope that the board will eventually examine and address this larger question.
In public testimony, Rick Steiner among others argued that the debate shouldn’t be about what restrictions are placed on the hunt, but whether there should be a hunt at all. He then urged the CAB to take a stand: “I would ask the board to request the director to rescind his approval of the hunt.”
In the end, the board did just that, by an 8-1 vote.
In an email exchange with me after the meeting, board chair Rosa Meehan noted that she hadn’t yet drafted a letter to Gease, so I don’t have the exact language of the request to come. But the wording discussed at the meeting went something like this: “Given the lack of opportunity for the board and the public to comment on the proposed hunt prior to the director’s decision as had been promised, the board requests director Ricky Gease to rescind his approval of the hunt.”
In her email, Meehan confirmed a “loss of trust” is part of the board’s rationale.
Geese can refuse to repeal his decision, of course, though that would be further evidence the parks director seems to be acting on behalf of Fish and Game administrators, rather than supporting the clear and strong advice and wishes of those most closely connected to Chugach State Park’s management. Some folks watching events unfold have even begun to ask: who’s really making the decisions here?
There’s one other action that deserves mention: Anchorage attorney Tom Meacham has filed an administrative appeal with Gease’s boss, DNR Commissioner Corri Feige, arguing (with considerable supporting evidence) that “the Director’s Permit approving ADF&G’s new black bear season in the McHugh Creek drainage, Permit No. 19-276, should be found to be in violation of AS 41.21.122, and therefore held to be unlawful and void.”
Joining Meacham in this appeal were five other people, including me. We all await Gease and Feige’s next actions, as the circumstances surrounding this hunt become curiouser and curiouser.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Chugach State Park: Alaska’s Backyard Wilderness,” a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.