A court win protects Kenai brown bears—a new rule threatens them

A November court win upheld the prohibition of brown bear baiting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a longtime wildlife management practice formalized in 2016 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after robust public engagement. A new rule would undermine those protections by allowing Kenai brown bear baiting for the first time ever.

court win protects Kenai brown bear, new rule threatens them
A brown bear cub in the Kenai River. Photo by Lisa Hupp, USFWS

The State of Alaska filed a lawsuit to undermine the 2016 Kenai rule, claiming that Fish and Wildlife Service did not have the authority to adopt rules that conflict with state regulations. Trustees intervened in early 2017 on behalf of 15 clients to argue, along with Fish and Wildlife Service, that the agency has an obligation and the authority to manage wildlife refuges for biological health and diversity.

Last month’s court ruling upheld that view—a big win for our work, our clients, Kenai wildlife and for Kenai Refuge users who hike, camp, boat, and view wildlife.

The ruling confirms that the Fish and Wildlife Service has authority under ANILCA to regulate wildlife hunting practices on national wildlife refuges according to federal mandates for managing those lands, even if in conflict with state regulations.

In other words, said Rachel Briggs, a staff attorney with Trustees, “Kenai Refuge will continue to function as a true refuge for vulnerable Kenai brown bears and other animals, and the Skilak area will be managed for wildlife viewing.”

That’s the good news.

Now the bad news

The Trump administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service took aim at bears, wolves, and other animals through a new proposed rule that would allow brown bear baiting in the Kenai Refuge for the first time. This new rule proposes allowing a bevy of other dangerous and destructive trapping activities and to essentially align with state hunting regulations and ignore federal mandates, no matter the harm to wildlife, public lands, or the public interest.

court win protects Kenai brown bears, new rule threatens them
Hidden Creek in the Kenai Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

This new rule would defy mandates that direct Fish and Wildlife Service to manage wildlife refuges for wildlife diversity and for a diversity of recreational uses. The comment period for this proposed 2020 rule is over, and we’re waiting to see if the agency finalizes it in the last days of this anti-environment administration.

Keeping the pressure on

Though a prohibition on baiting vulnerable Kenai brown bears in the Kenai Refuge was upheld in court, efforts to negate those protections continue.

Trustees for Alaska will keep working with partners to encourage the Fish and Wildlife Service to drop the proposal and continue to protect Kenai brown bears, other wildlife, and recreational uses that include wildlife viewing—and we will go to court if necessary to ensure that the Refuge is managed as intended by Congress.