FAIRBANKS—U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan acted Wednesday to head off a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service move to ban some types of Alaska-legal bear, wolf and coyote hunts on federal wildlife refuges in the state.
An amendment to the Sullivan's "Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2015" would specifically prohibit the Fish and Wildlife Service from implementing hunting restrictions the agency introduced earlier this month.
On Jan. 8, the agency proposed a rule to ban hunting techniques including brown bear hunting over bait and hunting wolves and coyotes during the denning season. Such hunts violate the agency's conservation mission by deliberately targeting predators in order to boost the output of large game animal like deer, caribou and moose for human consumption, according to the text of the proposed rule. The federal agency's rule would affect the wildlife refuges it manages in Alaska, an area of land that's larger than Washington state.
Sullivan's amendment is part of a decades-long disagreement about Washington's power over Alaska's federal lands under the Statehood Act and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that created most of the federal wildlife refuges in the state.
"It would fundamentally change the relationship the Fish and Wildlife Service has with individual states from one of cooperation to subservience," Sullivan said in a phone interview Wednesday. "And that is not what the federal laws — ANILCA, the Statehood Act — have guaranteed Alaska."
That's not how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sees it. While the federal agency can leave hunting rules up to the states, it has the power to make additional rules, according to the 25-page explanation of the agency's proposed rule published in the Federal Register. The agency uses the same 1980 law to justify its regulation that Sullivan uses to question it.
"Under ANILCA, each refuge in Alaska has a nonexclusive list of purposes for which it was established, including 'conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity," the proposed rule states. The document makes the case that the agency's conservation mission supersedes the state's hunting laws.
Sullivan said Wednesday he used his congressional power to try to stop the executive rules change instead of waiting to challenge the law in court, because it's a faster way to challenge the regulation.
Also on Wednesday, Sullivan watched the U.S. Supreme Court take up another jurisdictional conflict between the state and federal government. In the case Sturgeon v. Frost on Wednesday, an Alaska hunter challenged whether the National Park Service had jurisdiction to enforce a ban on hovercrafts on the Nation River in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
Sullivan said Wednesday he is somewhat optimistic about his bill eventually becoming law. The bill is now out of committee, but he said he has no estimate for when it would reach the Senate floor. He plans to combine it with a similar bill from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that had 23 co-sponsors.
President Barack Obama's administration was somewhat supportive of an earlier version of the bill, or at least wasn't overtly opposed to it, Sullivan said.
"There are a number of provisions in this bill that the White House was supportive of," Sullivan said. "I wouldn't say on every provision, but it's not one of those bills where the White House is coming out swinging against it."
In addition to the language added Wednesday, the bill addresses a series of other federal sports hunting rules. Among other things, it proposes to relax the definition of "baited areas" as used in bird hunting rules and allows for more money from gun and ammunition taxes to go toward public shooting ranges.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.