Last week, Congress passed a resolution that expands hunters’ ability to track and kill wildlife living on the 76 million acres of Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge lands. The resolution overturns previous hunting rules that were meant to protect the “natural and biological diversity, biological integrity, and environmental health on refuges in Alaska” and to “prohibit several particularly effective methods and means for take of predators.” Among the hunting techniques that the new bill legalizes is the killing of hibernating bear mothers and cubs; using airplanes to scout for bears; hunting wolf mothers and their pups in their dens; and using steel-jawed leghold traps to catch bears. Now, all that’s left for the proposed regulations to become law is President Trump’s signature.
The bill, known as H.J.Res.69, was first introduced in the House by Representative Don Young (R-AK), who argued that the hunting rules were an overreach of the federal government into Alaskan state affairs. In his testimony in favor of the bill, Young said that the current regulations are “a classic example again from the previous administration of overreaching, do it our way or get out of the way, we don’t care about the Constitution, we don’t care about the law, we’re going to do it our way.”
Young’s speech was accurate in just one element—that the original hunting regulations were passed last year under the Obama administration. Regarding his claims about the Constitution and state’s rights issues, the current hunting regulations apply to federal lands only, not state lands, and the Property Clause in the Constitution, clearly “provides Congress broad authority to manage the lands owned by the federal government;” moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly shown that the Property Clause gives Congress “power over the public lands…without limitations.”
But even if it was up to Alaskan lawmakers to decide how to hunt wolf and bear cubs in their National Wildlife Refuge lands, it doesn’t seem like the people of Alaska want to overturn the hunting regulation. A statewide poll conducted last year by the Remington Research Group, showed that “Alaska voters strongly support an end to cruel and unsporting practices used to kill bears, wolves and coyotes on the state’s National Wildlife Refuges.”
Still, this is far from the first time that lawmakers have used the veil of states’ rights’ to try to wrestle control of public lands from the federal government. Last year, congressional Republicans proposed measures that sought to transfer control of federal lands back to the states; the measures, argued as a states’ rights issue, would make it easier for private companies to gain access to these lands, and to be used for resource extraction, including for things like oil, gas, coal, and other minerals. Not surprisingly, the biggest supporters in the push to “reclaim” public land are special interest groups like ALEC and Americans For Prosperity, both of which have deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. As Gizmodo writes, “they’re funding an argument that, on the surface, sounds sensible — States’ Rights! — but underneath, simply appears to be a land grab by private interests intent on resource exploitation.”
Daniel M. Ashe, the former Director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, defended Alaska’s hunting regulations in an op-ed published The Huffington Post:
These carefully crafted regulations eschew shortsighted policies designed to benefit the few, and instead emphasize sound, long-term land and wildlife stewardship for the current and future benefit of all. They will ensure that all wildlife—including predators—gets a fair shake on Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges, for which Congress has assigned us primary authority…. Special interest groups are quietly working at the federal and state level to lay the groundwork for federally managed lands to be handed over wholesale to state or even private ownership. Others have sought to erode federal management authority piecemeal, dealing death by a thousand cuts.
Clearly, the House felt otherwise, as it passed the resolution to overturn the hunting regulations easily, 225-193, with most representatives voting along party lines.
Targeting Endangered Species
The removal of the hunting regulations, taken in the context of Trump’s attempt to undue environmental regulations nationwide, is quite concerning; it was largely possible due to a concerted government effort to nurture wolf and bear populations back to healthy numbers in many Western states. The reintroduction of these species into what was once their native habitat, and protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), proved to be a successful conservation technique. And yet, under the Obama administration, as numbers rebounded many bear and wolf populations were taken off the protected list, allowing them to be hunted again. And a few still-endangered populations have been considered for removal from the ESA.
And now the Trump Administration has pledged to “modernize” the ESA, which has many conservationists worried that the entire legislation is in danger: “The professed desire to ‘modernize’ the ESA has almost always been code to push forward an agenda to weaken or gut it,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, head of Defenders of Wildlife, in a testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Before the hunting resolutions were brought to vote in the Senate, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) spoke out against the bill in a video for The Dodo, stating that overturning the hunting regulations would allow "some of the most cruel and inhumane savage killing of animals." Despite a concerted effort from several Democratic senators, including Booker, the resolution passed the Senate 52-47, with senators voting along party lines.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, blasted the Congress for reversing the hunting regulations, writing:
What the Senate did today should outrage the conscience of every animal lover in America. The passage of this bill means that we’ll see wolf families killed at their dens, bears chased down by planes or suffering for hours in barbaric steel-jawed traps or snares.
Back in January of 2016, Trump said in an interview with Field & Stream that he didn’t support states gaining control of public lands that were used for hunting purposes: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do… We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”