Bear attacks again banned in Alaska national preserves under new National Park Service rule • Alaska Beacon
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Bear attacks again banned in Alaska national preserves under new National Park Service rule • Alaska Beacon

Bear attacks will again be banned in Alaska’s national parks starting August 2, under a new rule adopted by the National Park Service.

The rule reinstates a ban on sport hunters that was imposed in 2015 by the Obama administration and then subject to a 2020 Trump administration rule that attempted to overturn it.

Bear baiting involves leaving food out to attract animals so they can be hunted more easily. Critics consider the practice unethical, although hunters who practice it say they follow strict rules.

The National Park Service says bear baiting creates unacceptable safety risks for animals living in national parks and for people who visit them. The danger is that bears will become accustomed to human-provided food and be more likely to interact with people.

That was the main concern when the agency adopted its new rule banning bear baiting, said Peter Christian, a spokesman for the National Park Service’s Alaska District.

“This is not something the Park Service can support from a public safety standpoint,” he said. “We’re trying to protect people from bears and bears from people.”

The new rule stems from a 2020 lawsuit against the Trump administration’s change of direction. That Trump-era policy never went into effect; U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that it violated National Park Service laws and policies, and she ordered the agency to reconsider.

The process to replace the Trump-era rule began in February 2022, the Park Service said.

The new rule only applies to sport hunters. It does not apply to subsistence hunting.

Sport and subsistence hunting is permitted in Alaska’s national preserves under the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act. However, sport hunting in preserves must be conducted in accordance with federal law.

In its new rule, the Park Service declined to reinstate all Obama-era bans on controversial sport hunting practices such as killing black bear cubs, adult female bears with cubs, using artificial light in dens and killing wolves and coyotes, including pups, during denning season.

The Park Service said it declined to extend the new rule beyond the bear trapping ban because some of the other prohibitions it was considering are already off-limits to sport hunters under state law.

Brown bears frolic in the water at Katmai National Park on June 30, 2009. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
Brown bears frolic in the water at Katmai National Park and Preserve on June 30, 2009. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game can allow sport hunters to use some of these practices, but it does so sparingly, Christian said. “The state had the authority to allow them, and when they do, it’s limited to a very small area and a short period of time,” he said.

State authority does not extend to subsistence hunting in national reserves. This category of hunting is managed by the federal government.

The National Park Service’s new rule has been criticized from both sides.

Members of the groups that sued to overturn the Trump-era rule said the new rule falls far short of what it needs to do because it allows several controversial hunting practices to continue on reserves.

“Ending bear hunting in preserves is important for visitor safety and ecological health. The rest of this rule is disappointing,” Jim Adams of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a statement. Adams is the association’s senior regional director for Alaska.

“In its settlement, the Park Service recognizes that many sport hunting practices conflict with the agency’s mission, but allows them to continue,” Adams said.

Jon Jarvis, former superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and former director of the National Park Service, was also critical.

“The National Park Service has opposed the state’s anti-sport predator hunting practices for many years,” Jarvis said in the National Parks Conservation Association statement. “These practices clearly conflict with the NPS’s longstanding wildlife conservation policies and mandates and are not appropriate in areas that the NPS manages for future generations. This rule is a major setback for protecting the diversity of wildlife in our national preserves in Alaska.”

On the other hand, Safari Club International, one of the hunting organizations that intervened in the 2020 lawsuit to defend the Trump-era rule, called the new rule unfair.

“We will likely go back to court over the new rule. A federal judge has already ruled that herring hunting does not pose a safety or conservation concern. Despite that ruling, hunting opponents within the Park Service pushed through a rule that is opposed by the state, as well as Native communities and Alaskans. While very few bears are likely to be hunted for herring, SCI will fight this restriction to avoid “death by a thousand cuts,” a favorite strategy of hunting opponents,” the organization said on its website.

The state of Alaska, along with hunting groups, stepped in to support the Trump-era rule and opposed the broader rule being considered by the Biden administration. In a March 24, 2023, letter to the National Park Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the proposed rule usurped Alaska’s authority and harmed Alaskans.

“This has far-reaching implications for the availability of national lands set aside for hunting and traditional cultural practices, as Congress intended and on which Alaskans have long depended,” he said in the letter.

In May, Judge Gleason issued an order allowing the appeals process to continue. Some parties, including the state, have already taken advantage of that opportunity.

“The state and other parties have already appealed Judge Gleason’s decision to the Ninth Circuit,” Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Justice, said in an email. “The state’s brief is due later this month. We are reviewing this new rule to determine how it will impact the ongoing appeal and whether further legal proceedings should be pursued.”

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