It was 1972 when Congress originally passed the Federal Airborne Hunting Act, making it illegal for hunters to shoot animals from a plane or helicopter. Back then, as it is today, the practice was seen as unsportsmanlike, inhumane, and unfair.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally adopted the same prohibition to prevent the State of Alaska from allowing the practice on Refuges, Trustees for Alaska reports. USFWS noted at the time that the rule was necessary because the state’s law not only left loopholes for abuse and violations of the Airborne Hunting Act, but could exacerbate existing wildlife problems.
National wildlife refuges were established in Alaska by the National Park Service, “to conserve fish and wildlife populations in their natural diversity.” In recent years, state officials have ignored both science and direction from the National Park Service, targeting predators with the vain hope of increasing prey species for subsistence hunters.
In August of 2016, the USFWS finalized a rule to clarify federal protection of predators on Alaska’s wildlife refuges, protecting wildlife there by banning these hunting methods for good. But the measure was seen as overreach by the White House, which soon got involved in the dispute and overruled the USFWS’ refusal.
With the president’s signature, predators were again left vulnerable to extreme hunting by trophy hunters and by the state itself.
The state of Alaska’s toolkit for increasing moose and caribou numbers now includes killing mother bears slowed by tiny cubs, gassing wolf pups and families as they sleep in their dens, bear baiting, snares, and traps, the CBC reports. And perhaps most controversial of all, hunting bears and wolves via relentless pursuit by small aircraft — gunning them down from the skies.
Since 2003, Alaska has issued aerial wolf-hunting permits in select areas where moose and caribou populations are particularly endangered, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The idea is that by killing the predators, the airborne gunmen can ramp up the number of moose and caribou that human hunters can take home for supper.
Airborne hunters tend to fly single-engine Super Cub planes at very low speeds and at altitudes of less than 100 feet, Slate reports, sometimes swooping down to 10 to 15 feet above the ground. There have been a number of reported deaths in recent years as a result.
During several hunting seasons, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has lent its own helicopters and employees to the predator-control effort.
Aldo Leopold once saw “a fierce green fire dying” in the eyes of a gray wolf he’d just shot. It was then he realized his vision of a “hunters’ paradise” would leave the wilderness far worse off. As a team of scientists wrote in their study, Large carnivores under assault in Alaska, published in PLOS Biology, “Most of the world now recognizes that apex predators have great intrinsic value as well as providing vitally important ecosystem services. In many cases, these services outweigh some of the inconveniences to humans associated with large carnivore populations.”
The fact is, apex predators, including grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves, are vital for a healthy and thriving ecosystem.
Study after study has shown that the presence of apex predators improves the health of ungulates like caribou, moose, and wild sheep by culling the old, sick, or weak. They affect the very landscape, changing how prey species move and forage. They concentrate and distribute vital nutrients throughout the ecosystem, helping the very plants the feed prey species. And their predation has less effect on the ungulate population than the far more important availability of plant food.
To sanction and promote extreme hunting methods in these refuges goes against everything they were established for. The State of Alaska’s methods of shooting mother bears with cubs, gassing wolf families in their dens, snares and traps, or taking unsportsmanlike advantage of bait stations and airplanes will not protect wild ungulates that Alaskans rely on, nor are they at all likely to increase the populations or health of these species.
Join the growing number of others who are standing up for Alaska’s apex predators, and demanding respect for the vital role they play in the ecosystem.
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