Bear baiting again banned in national preserves in Alaska

By: Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

NPS Photo / K. Jalone. 2009.

Bear baiting will be again banned on national preserves in Alaska starting on Aug. 2, under a new rule adopted by the National Park Service.

The rule restores a ban for sport hunters that was imposed in 2015 by the Obama administration, then subject to a 2020 Trump administration rule that attempted to overturn it.

Bear baiting is the practice of leaving food to lure the animals so that they can be more easily hunted. Critics consider it unethical, though hunters who practice it argue that they abide by strict rules.

To the National Park Service, bear baiting creates unacceptable safety risks, both for the animals that live in national preserves and for the people that visit them. The danger is that bears will become habituated to human-provided food and be more likely to interact with people.

That was the top concern when the agency adopted its new rule banning bear baiting, said Peter Christian, a spokesperson for the National Park Service’s Alaska district.

“It’s not something the Park Service can support from a public safety perspective,” he said. “We’re trying to protect people from bears and bears from people.”

The new rule stems from a 2020 lawsuit that challenged the Trump administration change. That Trump-era policy never went into effect; U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that it violated National Park Service laws and policies, and she ordered the agency to reconsider it.

The process of replacing the Trump-era rule started in February 2022, the Park Service said.

The new rule affects only sport hunters. It does not affect subsistence.

Sport and subsistence hunting is permitted on national preserves in Alaska, under the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act. However, sport hunting in preserves must be conducted according to federal law.

In its new rule, the Park Service declined to restore all of the Obama-era prohibitions on controversial sport hunting practices such as killing black bear cubs, adult female bears with cubs, using artificial light at den sites and killing wolves and coyotes, including pups, during the denning season.

The Park Service said it declined to extend the new rule beyond the bear-baiting ban because some of the other prohibitions it was considering are already disallowed for sport hunters under state law.

Brown bears cavort in the water in Katmai National Park on June 30, 2009. (Photo provided by National Park Service)
Brown bears cavort in the water in Katmai National Park and Preserve on June 30, 2009. (Photo provided by National Park Service)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game may allow sport hunters to use some of those practices, but it does so only sparingly, Christian said. “The state had the authority to authorize them, and when they do, it’s limited to a very small area for a short period of time,” he said.

The state’s authority does not extend to subsistence hunting in national preserves. That category of hunting is federally managed.

The new National Park Service rule was criticized by parties on both sides of the issue.

Members of the groups that sued to overturn the Trump-era rule said the new rule fell far short because it allows several controversial hunting practices to continue in the reserves.

“Stopping bear baiting in preserves is important for visitor safety and ecological health. The rest of this rule is disappointing,” Jim Adams of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a statement. Adams is the association’s Alaska senior regional director.

“In its rule, the Park Service recognizes that numerous sport hunting practices conflict with the agency’s mission — yet allows them to continue,” Adams said.

Jon Jarvis, former superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and a former director of the National Park Service, was also critical.

“The National Park Service has opposed the State’s unsportsmanlike predator hunting practices for many years,” Jarvis said in the National Parks Conservation Association’s statement. “These methods are in clear conflict with longstanding NPS wildlife conservation policies and mandates and are not appropriate in areas managed for future generations by the NPS. This rule is a major setback for the protection of wildlife diversity in our national preserves of Alaska.”

On the other side, Safari Club International, one of the hunting organizations that intervened in the 2020 lawsuit in defense of the Trump-era rule, characterized the new rule as unjust.

“We will likely be back in court over the new rule. A federal judge already recognized that harvest over bait does not pose a safety or conservation concern. Despite that ruling, anti-hunters in the Park Service have pushed through a rule that is opposed by the State, as well as Alaska Native communities and Alaska citizens.  While very few bears are likely to be harvested over bait, SCI will fight this restriction to avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ — a favorite strategy of anti-hunters,” the organization said on its website.

The state of Alaska, along with hunting groups, intervened in support of the Trump-era rule and opposed the more expansive rule that the Biden administration considered. In a March 24, 2023, letter sent to the National Park Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the proposed rule usurps Alaska authority and harms individual Alaskans.

“It has far-reaching implications on the availability of national preserve lands for hunting and traditional cultural practices as Congress intended and Alaskans have long depended upon,” he said in the letter.

Gleason in May issued an order allowing appeals to proceed. Some parties, including the state, have already taken that opportunity.

“The State along with the other parties have already appealed Judge Gleason’s decision to the Ninth Circuit,” Patty Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law, said by email. “The State’s brief is currently due at the end of this month. We are in the process of reviewing this new rule to determine how it impacts the ongoing appeal and whether to pursue additional litigation.”