Nearly 70 people weighed in on proposed changes to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge regulations during a series of public hearings last week. That’s on top of more than 44,000 written comments the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received on the matter to date.
Most who testified spoke in opposition to the proposal, taking particular issue with changes that would permit brown bear baiting where black bear baiting is already allowed and reversing restrictions on trapping by trailheads. Those who spoke in favor advocated aligning state and federal refuge policies on hunting in the refuge.
The changes were already the subject of an open comment period this summer. In response to popular demand, Fish and Wildlife agreed to reopen the comment period from Oct. 9 to Nov. 9 and hold three days of public hearings in late October. But they abruptly canceled the third of those hearings the day before it was scheduled to take place.
The service has not provided justification for why the hearing was canceled, either publicly or in response to a request for comment. Some who were slated to testify think it may be because there was low turnout at the first hearing, Oct. 26. Only 21 of the 115 who signed up to testify were present. An additional 48 testified Tuesday.
Among them were several representatives from conservation and animal advocacy groups, who spoke about the effects the proposed regulations could have on the wildlife of the area. Some of those groups have been meeting for weeks to discuss their joint opposition to the proposal.
“The state of Alaska does predator control in many different forms, and often population manipulation is rooted in means, methods and changes to harvest limits," said Andy Moderow, the state director for the Alaska Wilderness League. "In Alaska, it’s really critical to know all predator manipulation violates ANILCA on federal public lands of this sort, and the agency must look for that and be able to control it before it begins.”
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act is the federal law that established the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as a wildlife refuge in 1980.
Sarah Stokey, of Seward, was one of many commenters who spoke about how the proposed regulation changes would negatively affect recreational users of refuge lands.
“I’ve been adversely impacted in my own life by changes to trapping regulations near trailheads," she said. "Several years ago, I had a dog get lost, took off from a leash, got caught in a trap and killed. This is an issue that, to me, is both personal, and important.”
Doug Vincent-Lang is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He supports the regulations, with modifications that would codify the state’s role in refuge governance.
“The state has a long and distinguished history of excellent wildlife management, which the proposed changes will allow to continue," he said. "We encourage the service to discuss any wildlife-related biological or conservation concerns with the Department of Fish and Game.”
Regina Lennox, the litigation counsel for the hunting advocacy organization Safari Club International, also spoke in support of the changes.
“Safari Club, our missions include protecting the right to hunt, protecting hunters’ interests and protecting the use of hunting as a conservation and a management tool," she said. "We also support the states’ primary authority to make decisions with respect to the management of fish and wildlife resources.”
Safari Club International and the state of Alaska filed lawsuits in 2016 over hunting restrictions in the refuge. Both allege that Obama-era regulations preempt state management of wildlife.
Each presidential administration has a different approach to refuge management issues. That underscores the need for public feedback on refuge policy, said Nicole Schmitt, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.
“That’s why public comment is so important, because people who use the refuge and the wildlife that depend on the habitats in the refuge shouldn’t be subjected to the whims of administrators. There’s a public process for a very important reason," she said. "Residents of the Kenai Peninsula are subject matter experts on the refuge because it’s your home and you know your home more than anywhere else.”
To submit a public comment on the proposed changes, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. The service will parse comments presented at the hearings and submitted online before making a final decision on the regulations.