Who gets to manage wildlife on national wildlife refuges? Thanks to House Joint Resolution 69, the states do. President Donald Trump signed the resolution in April. It nullified the Obama administration's Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Rule, which placed predator management on Alaska's national wildlife refuges in the hands of federal officials. The refuge rule, adopted in 2016, essentially stripped Alaska Fish and Game of its authority to manage wildlife on national wildlife refuges. Although those refuges are controlled by the federal government, individual states manage the wildlife within them.
Predictably, groups like the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife protested HJ Resolution 69. A representative of the Center for Biological Diversity told the Huffington Post, it was "yet another extremist assault on the environment." Not exactly, said Sportsmen's Alliance spokesman Brian Lynn.
"The federal government does not manage wildlife beyond the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," Lynn said. "The Obama administration's ruling essentially redefined predator management and took it away from the state. Wildlife managers with other state agencies were very concerned about the refuge rule. So were a number of conservation groups. This was a complete anomaly, and it set a dangerous precedent. On top of that, Alaska has three separate federal statutes that protect its right to manage the wildlife inside its borders."
Generally, hunting rules and regulations for resident game species on federal refuges are set or dictated by state wildlife agencies. Wildlife Management Institute President Steve Williams said state and federal managers do disagree about hunting on refuges at times, but they typically work out those differences. The Alaska ruling, however, was a sweeping overreach that would have taken predator management on some of the state's 16 refuges away from Alaska Fish and Game and turned it over to federal biologists.
"Basically, the state thought wolves and bears need to be managed better, and the Fish and Wildlife Service thought the state was inconsistent in its management efforts," Williams said. Williams served as the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under George W. Bush. "The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge ruling created this fear among many state wildlife agencies that management on refuges all over could be taken over by the feds, giving each administration the opportunity to change the rules as they see fit."
Williams can't say what the Obama administration's motives were. It's entirely possible Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were genuinely concerned about the overharvest of wolves and bears. But the last-minute addition of the refuge rule by Obama was certainly questionable.
"It's pretty well established that wolves and bears have taken a pretty heavy toll on caribou and moose in parts of Alaska," Williams said. "Both are important for subsistence and recreational hunters alike, so, I'm not sure what the Service was thinking when it agreed to the rule."
In all, Alaska's 16 refuges cover more than 76 million acres, about 18 percent of the entire state. Arctic NWR, the largest in the state and the country, is 19.3 million acres. It's located in a region where subsistence hunting is vital and recreational hunting is popular. A continued decline in caribou and moose numbers could have a significant impact on residents and businesses in and near the refuge.
Lynn thinks there could have been an anti-hunting element at play. Wolf and bear management activities in particular are a popular target for anti-hunting groups, so it's not out of the question that Obama sought to appease those organizations on his way out.
"I think in some ways it [Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Rule] reflected the Obama administration's attitude about hunting and wildlife management in general," Lynn said.
The Sportsmen's Alliance along with Safari Club International and the Alaska Professional Hunters Association filed suit last year to overturn the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Rule. The suit was dropped after President Trump nullified the refuge rule.