In 2018, the Trump administration came under scrutiny from environmental and animal rights activists for its attempt to end the Obama administration’s ban on several controversial hunting practices on federal lands in Alaska.
In the May 22, 2018 Federal Register, the Trump administration announced its intention to alter National Park Service (NPS) rules banning certain hunting activities. The change would allow hunters to once again engage in practices that many people and organizations view as gratuitously cruel and antithetical to the good stewardship of public lands.
Reintroducing inhumane practices
Among other practices, the Trump administration’s proposed changes would permit the killing of bear cubs in the approximately 2 million acres of federally owned Alaskan wilderness. The changes would also allow hunters to kill wolf and coyote pups during the animals’ “denning” season, and to shoot at caribou and other game from powerboats, snowmobiles, and even aircraft. In addition, the rules would allow hunters to use dogs to harry and entrap bears and other wildlife, and to lure bears with bait in order to more easily kill them.
In 2015, the Obama administration instituted a rule for the NPS that limited such problematic hunting and trapping activities. The proposed rollbacks would close out these federal wildlife protections, permitting individual state governments to decide which protections they will and will not support for wildlife on NPS lands within their borders.
The 2018 Trump administration decision developed in conjunction with a series of orders from the Interior Department issued over the previous year. These orders were broadly designed to expand access to federally owned lands for hunters.
Baiting, harsh lights, killing of young animals
The Obama administration’s 2015 rule prohibited the use of artificial lights, dogs, and bait—some hunters use doughnuts or bacon grease—when hunting bears. Its other provisions included a ban on hunting female bears and wolves found with their young, and on hunting cubs and pups themselves. Environmentalists, scientists, and the public alike have especially decried the inhumane aspect of hunting mother animals with their young.
A case in point
One particularly egregious instance illustrates the cruel hunting practices that the 2015 rules outlaw. Early in 2019, a court sentenced an Alaska man to jail time and hefty fines under the Obama-era regulations for the illegal shooting and killing, at point-blank range, of a mother bear and her cubs while the animals were asleep in their den. The man and his 18-year-old son also lost their hunting licenses.
The father and son were caught on film by a motion-activated camera that researchers had attached near the bears’ den. The camera recorded the cubs crying out after they realized that their mother had been shot. It also recorded the men shooting the two cubs and leaving their bodies on the ground as they hauled the mother bear’s body away. Days later, the two men returned to take away the bodies of the cubs.
The other side of the issue
Some Alaskan hunters who kill wild animals for food have a different take on the situation. In news interviews, these hunters have said that their methods of baiting with bacon grease or doughnuts and using artificial lights are not violations of commonly accepted ideas about “fair chase.” Instead, they argue that these practices are both more humane and more practical for those hunters who seek to live off the land and feed their families, as they have done for generations.
Leaders of pro-hunting groups such as the Alaska Outdoor Council have gone on record saying that these controversial practices are in fact extremely rare on federal lands.
Putting conservation first
Proponents of the Obama administration’s 2015 decision to tighten hunting restrictions seek to protect wildlife with a view to the long-term preservation of ecosystems. Leaders of groups such as Defenders of Wildlife have noted their strong opposition to killing mother bears and wolves and their young in dens, characterizing this practice as cruel and “barbaric.”
According to representatives of the NPS, the 2015 hunting restrictions were established with balance in mind: a balance between the need for conservation of wildlife and the desire to provide improved conditions for sport hunters.
Politicians in favor of strong environmental regulation have expressed outrage over the Trump administration’s move. Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, co-chairs the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus. His take on the issue is that the rollback on wildlife protection regulations has “no place” in the proper stewardship of publicly owned lands.
Trying to strike a balance
Thanks to organizations, activists, and the public speaking out against the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the hunting regulations, the adoption of the new rules was delayed. In July 2018, the NPS extended the public comment period on the proposed changes until September 6th, based on unusually high public interest. The public comment period was extended again until November 5, 2018. By then, hundreds of thousands of comments had been received.
In fall 2018, the NPS announced that it would attempt to follow the Trump administration’s directions to ease the hunting rules. At the same time, the NPS cannot override the terms of the National Park Service Organic Act, which codifies the agency’s conservation mandate. As of October 2019, Alaska-based conservation advocates remained deeply concerned about the regulatory rollback.