The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to legalize the killing of black bear cubs and their mothers at their dens in Alaska’s national wildlife refuges.
The controversial measure, backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), overturns a ‘Fair Chase’ rule, promulgated by the Obama administration, that also limited baiting, trapping, and the use of airplanes to track and shoot bears and wolves on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands in Alaska.
The vote was met with an outpouring of criticism from wildlife and conservation groups.
“Alaska’s extreme predator control policies lack scientific support, contravene conservation mandates on national wildlife refuges and defy traditional wildlife management principles,” said Jenny Keatinge, federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife. “H.J. Res. 69 would cede federal management of iconic wildlife to the state’s misguided program on over 76 million acres of national wildlife refuges that belong to all Americans.”
Safari Club International, a group that has been criticized by both sportsmen and animals rights groups for advocating “canned” or captive hunting and elite trophy hunting, joined the NRA in pushing Congress to overturn the Fair Chase rule. In a letter to House members, the groups claimed the rule preempts the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s authority on national wildlife refuges.
The Obama administration rule Congress is seeking to overturn, however, does not prohibit hunting in wildlife refuges, and allows both subsistence hunting as well as science-based predator control. However, it limits certain practices, such as using rotting meat and pet food to lure bears for an easy kill, which some hunting groups say violates the ethics of fair chase.
A similar controversy arose in Maine in 2014 when a ballot measure would have limited bear baiting in the state. While the ballot measure narrowly lost, hundreds of organizations, businesses, and opinion leaders, including many hunters, spoke out against bear baiting.
“Hounding, baiting, and trapping lack the very skill that draws most hunters to the sport: the challenge of tracking and finding the bear,” Mary Moulton, an avid hunter and supporter of the ballot measure, explained in 2014. “These practices give hunting a bad image by mocking the notion of sportsmanship and fair chase.”
The hunting practices the House voted to legalize on Thursday are considered cruel by many Alaska residents. Recent polling shows that by a two-to-one margin, Alaskans don’t support baiting or trapping in national wildlife refuges.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands and waters dedicated to wildlife conservation. The system is made up of 566 national wildlife refuges, including 16 in Alaska.
A companion resolution in the Senate, sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), has not yet been scheduled for a vote.