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Feds toss proposed Kenai refuge rule, upholding limitations on hunting and trapping

Sabine Poux

The federal government is walking back a proposal that would have allowed brown bear baiting and reversed other restrictions on hunting and trapping in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge — one of two decisions in the last week that environmental groups say is a win for the refuge and its wildlife.

As it stands, the practice of taking brown bears at bait stations is not allowed on the nearly 2-million acre refuge, as outlined in an Obama-era regulation known as the “Kenai Rule.” In 2020, the Trump Administration tried to reverse those protections in a proposed new rule that also would’ve opened up access in the refuge to more bicycles and snowmachines.

But those rule changes never passed. And on Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which manages the refuge — announcedit was withdrawing the proposal, citing the tens of thousands of comments submitted in opposition to the rule change over concerns about impacts to wildlife and visitor safety.

The service also said it considered “new information on recent annual levels of human-caused brown bear mortalities on the Kenai Peninsula, and additional scientific literature” in its decision about brown bear baiting.

“We continue to believe … that allowing the harvest of brown bears over bait on the Refuge has a high potential to result in adverse impacts to the Refuge’s brown bear population, and that a cautious approach to management of Kenai Peninsula brown bears remains scientifically warranted,” the service said in its decision.

The withdrawal isn’t the only victory for those commenters. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take up a legal challenge from the State of Alaska and Safari Club International on the Kenai Rule — halting a case that has been working its way through the court for seven years.

“This week was a big week in terms of the movement on these protections,” said Nicole Schmitt, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

She said the decisions show the federal government does have authority to manage wildlife on refuge lands, including for the purpose of maintaining natural diversity.

“The second big point is that through the decision to rescind the 2020 rule, I think the refuge really listened to and took a hard look at what those changes would really mean on the ground,” she said.

In its decision, Fish and Wildlife cited concerns about public safety related to brown bear baiting and increased access for hunters, for example.

But advocates of the 2020 rule, including the State of Alaska and Safari Club, have a different take.

Alaska has argued its authority to manage wildlife on federal lands within the state. And it said brown bear baiting does not pose a risk to public safety.

“Wildlife management decisions should not be made based on the number of public comments, but on the best available science," said Safari Club's Ben Cassidy in a written statement. "And the best available science supported the proposed rule.”

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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