Federal Judge Rules National Park Service Was Wrong to Loosen Alaska Hunting Regulations

by Amy Myers
(Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

Recently, the National Park Service relaxed its hunting regulations in Alaska’s national preserves that allowed prohibited practices in other federal lands. Now, though, federal courts have ruled that the recent revision is a mistake.

According to U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Gleason’s ruling, the NPS was wrong to defer to the state’s hunting regulations, as Alaska’s wildlife management requirements are not congruent to those of the Park Service. In fact, the National Park Service had even previously found that Alaska’s hunting regulations “failed to address public safety concerns associated with bear baiting,” per National Parks Traveler

The issue began in 2017 when, during President Trump’s term, the Department of the Interior ordered the Park Service to reevaluate the wildlife and hunting regulations that conflicted with those of the state. The regulations in question were ones that the National Park Service had adopted in October 2015 and had prohibited:

  • The use of bait and artificial lighting while hunting bears
  • Killing bear cubs and sows with cubs
  • Killing wolves, coyotes and pups during denning season
  • The use of motorboats under power while hunting caribou
  • The use of dogs while hunting black bears

One year later, the National Park Service redacted the prohibitions on the preserve sections of Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali, Katmai national parks as well as Yukon-Charley and Gates of the Arctic national preserves.

Critics ‘Appalled’ by National Park Service’s Revision to Hunting Practices

Soon after word spread of the change in the National Park Service’s hunting regulations in Alaska, critics voiced their disdain. In particular, Phil Francis, the then-chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, stated that the change directly conflicted with the Park Service’s mission to support natural ecosystems.

“We are appalled by the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to adopt these cruel and unsportsmanlike hunting practices on National Park Service preserve lands in Alaska,” Francis said. “Techniques such as killing bear sows with cubs at den sites or harvesting brown bears over bait are clearly inappropriate within units of the National Park System.”

Francis also pointed to The NPS Organic Act, which aims to conserve park resources and support their enjoyment “in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired” for future generations. He argued that the act requires the NPS to allow for “natural predator-prey relationships and population dynamics to occur, rather than removing the predators through objectionable hunting practices.”

Ultimately, the judge ruled that the National Park Service was wrong to believe that it had to defer to state regulations. Instead, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act “preserves the federal government’s plenary power over public lands in Alaska.” Additionally, the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution deems that federal hunting laws automatically override those of the state for cases like this.

NPCA Says Previous Law Change Placed Alaska’s Wolves and Bears in Danger

Among those that celebrated Judge Gleason’s decision was Jim Adams, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“This ruling is important. The court flat out found that the current rule is illegal and that the Park Service indeed has authority to protect the national interest in federal public lands,” Adams said.

However, there’s still work to be done before normalcy can returrn to Alaska’s national preserves. While the ruling is a win for these areas, the rules will remain in effect until the National Park Service completes its review of the regulations in question.

“Unfortunately, it also left the illegal rule in place in the short run, putting bears and wolves at risk and flying in the face of the agency’s mission and core values. NPCA has fought for commonsense hunting regulations on Alaska’s parklands for decades, and we will continue to push for an end to this terrible rule,” Adams said.