Former Alaska Wildlife Director: Congress Needed to Rein in Federal Intrusions

WASHINGTON – The former director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife claims the federal government is intruding into the state’s management of fish and wildlife and that the dispute likely will require congressional intervention.

Doug Vincent-Lang, speaking on behalf of Safari Club International, told members of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife that the differences between federal and state authorities “seem unresolvable given increasingly divergent management philosophies.”

The intrusions, Vincent-Lang said, are “wide ranging” and include what he characterized as federal “misuse” of the Endangered Species Act.

As an example, he cited the case of the ringed seal. The animal was identified as a threatened species based on modeling forecasts for possible reductions over a 100-year timeframe.

“Yet, these seals currently number in the millions and are expected to remain at these numbers through mid-century,” Vincent-Lang said. “Such listings are unnecessary and allow federal agencies to exert management control over listed species and their landscapes.”

Of greater concern is a new regulation promulgated by the National Park Service regarding the management of wildlife within those national preserves located in Alaska.

Historically, the states – not the federal government – have been afforded primacy over the management of wildlife within their borders. The act that granted Alaska statehood even includes a provision transferring federal management authority over to the state, rights that were further guaranteed by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

But under the new regulation, adopted despite objections from the state of Alaska, the National Park Service is closing preserves to many hunting opportunities, Vincent-Lang told the panel, despite a lack of conservation concerns.

“The Park Service chose to substitute their agency ethics and values as to what constitutes appropriate hunting methods, ignoring publicly adopted state regulations that allowed those practices,” Vincent-Lang said.

And now, he said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a new rule that implements federal management control over wildlife in Alaska’s national wildlife refuges.

“These rules will fundamentally alter the federal government’s longstanding wildlife management relationship with Alaska and, once applied in Alaska, we could see similar rules from the service for similar management across all the states,” Vincent-Lang said.

Vincent-Lang called on Congress to adopt legislation that ensures that Alaska’s fish and game management model is not preempted or compromised by federal administrative actions and make it clear that federal conservation responsibility exists only in a monitoring role.

The states, not the federal government, should have the authority to adopt regulations that involve hunting seasons, bag limits, hunting methods and means, and from determining the range of sustainable wildlife numbers, he said.

Vincent-Lang said the federal government is acting under a recently implemented Biological Integrity Policy, which replaces active state management with a “hands off” management approach.

“Under a hands-off approach, it is questionable whether Alaska will be allowed to continue to actively manage its sheep and bear populations for trophy hunting opportunities,” Vincent-Lang said. “Will Alaska be allowed to continue to actively manage its salmon runs for optimal sustained yield? Will subsistence hunters be required to adopt fair chase standards?”

Agency actions, he said, “represent an unprecedented administrative intrusion by federal agencies into the state’s traditional role as the principle manager of fish and wildlife.”

Ron Reagan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said that in general “states agencies enjoy a good working relationship with the federal agencies” and they strive constantly to improve that for the benefit of fish and wildlife resources and constituents.

But, he said, there are “foundational and jurisdictional concerns” that threaten the state’s traditional management authority. Recent actions “would usurp Alaska’s authority to manage fish and wildlife for sustained yield, including predators and large ungulates in national wildlife refuges in favor of a hands-off or passive management paradigm which would adversely affect Alaska fish and game objectives for resident fish and wildlife.”

A representative of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service was not invited to the hearing to explain the agency’s actions. Donald Barry, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, said Democrats on the subcommittee wanted Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, to be called to testify but the request was rejected by majority Republicans – a move Barry characterized as “mystifying and bizarre.”

Instead, Barry told the panel that the hearing “can easily create the impression that strong disagreements between FWS and state fish and wildlife agencies are the norm and that there is constant wildlife warfare between the feds and the states over jurisdiction and turf.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “Playing on this false impression is like focusing on the hole and not the rest of the donut, since for dozens and dozens of fish and wildlife conservation programs, the state and federal biologists are linked arm in arm and are working closely and collaboratively and successfully with each other.”

Barry said he believes the new and proposed rules are intended to address

Alaska’s “aggressive predator killing program” and are “absolutely consistent with, and required by” the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the 1997 Refuge Improvement Act.

The service, Barry said, maintains the “authority to say ‘no.’”

“If the state were to challenge a final federal refuge rulemaking of this sort in court, I have no doubt that they would lose, which is probably why there is now an effort to block the service from taking final action by legislation.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service, Barry said, “has taken a courageous and correct step and it would be a major mistake for Congress to block the agency from finalizing its predator rule for national wildlife refuges in Alaska.”

But Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), the subcommittee chairman, said that “anytime the federal government intrudes into our sovereign responsibility to sustain and manage fish and wildlife populations, it’s of great concern to Alaskans.”

Sullivan asserted that federal preemption “can severely affect the management authority of the states, most markedly with the Endangered Species Act, which leads to a federal takeover of species management and land-use under very specific circumstances.”

“When agencies, as they increasingly do, seek to bypass the will of Congress through regulations, it’s federal overreach at its worst,” he said.