After court decision, refuge rule change process could go several ways

Nov 20, 2020

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired a contractor to sift through the tens of thousands of comments it has received on the proposed regulation changes.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

The decision by Federal Judge Sharon Gleason to uphold Obama-era regulations in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge comes amidst a months-long effort by the state and hunting advocates to change those regulations, as well as a concurrent effort to keep them in place.

This summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed changes to existing refuge rules that include allowing hunting brown bears over bait and remove trapping setbacks from trails and trailheads, among others. The service is currently sifting through the tens of thousands of comments it received in response — most in opposition.

Separately, the federal court for the District of Alaska heard a 2016 case from the state of Alaska and Safari Club International to overturn the existing rules on the basis that they violated the state’s primacy to manage wildlife. That’s the decision that came out on Friday.

So, what does this mean for the ongoing rule-change process?

Those who have been following both processes are hesitant to speculate. But there are a couple different options.

For one, Fish and Wildlife might continue to to push the rule changes forward. The service has to sift through a mass of public comments before it comes to its decision — over 45,000 total — which may be hard to do before President Trump leaves office. But as the administration's recent push to sell oil rights in the Arctic shows, it’s not impossible.

Even if the rule changes do go through, however, opponents could later challenge that decision. And Friday’s judgment might help their case.

Rachel Briggs, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, says it would be hard to justify the proposed changes following Gleason’s ruling.

“Friday’s decision that affirmed that refuge management must continue to prioritize designated purposes, including protecting brown bears," she said.

Alternatively, the service could withdraw its proposal to change the rules. That way, 2016 regulations would remain in effect.

A third option is that Safari Club or the state could challenge Friday’s ruling.

“We’re worried about the fact that this has set a legal precedence, and without a challenge, this now becomes the new law of the land in how the federal government will operate in the context of ANILCA and the Refuge Act," said Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.

He says they’re reading through the ruling and talking to lawyers about whether they will appeal.

A spokesperson from Fish and Wildlife did not have insight on how the court case might impact the ongoing process.