Secretary Haaland and the Izembek Refuge

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Secretary Haaland and the Izembek Refuge

By Fran Mauer

 

Nearly forty-two years ago, Congress passed the greatest public land conservation legislation in American history -- the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). After prolonged discussions among State, Alaska Native, development, federal and conservation interests, a compromise on ANILCA was reached.

 

Reflecting this balanced approach, and in response to the strong national sentiment to protect these lands and the subsistence resources they sustain, the U.S. Senate voted 78-14 to approve ANILCA. The vote was bipartisan.

 

For Alaska and Alaskans, the extraordinary lands protected by ANILCA have been crucial in supporting subsistence, conservation, tourism, ecosystem services and more.

 

Unfortunately, since passage of this unprecedented conservation law, there have been efforts to undermine its purposes and integrity.

 

A primary tactic by opponents has been to misapply the land exchange provisions of ANILCA to transfer ownership of lands out of protected areas in order to achieve development purposes, contrary to the purposes of ANILCA.  The first such effort came in 1983 when the Reagan administration attempted to exchange lands for an off-shore oil exploration facility in the Saint Matthew Island National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness. This illegal exchange was nullified in court.

 

Another effort to promote development in conservation areas occurred when the Bush administration pursued a land exchange in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, for oil exploration and development.  Deeply concerned about the impacts this would have on subsistence and wildlife, village residents of the Yukon Flats objected. This exchange was subsequently dropped during the Obama-Biden administration. 

 

Now, Secretary Haaland is being asked to support a land exchange that would allow a road to be built across the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness that is virtually identical to one that was rejected by Secretary Jewell in the Obama/Biden Administration.

 

After extensive public review and comment, Secretary Jewell determined that the road would have profound, negative impacts on the wildlife, subsistence values and wilderness values of the Refuge, including to birds that migrate to Izembek from the Yukon Delta and other areas of northern Alaska, upon which Alaska Natives who live in Western Alaska rely.

 

Regarding alternatives to the road, the US Corps of Engineers completed an evaluation several years ago, finding that a seaworthy ferry, break-water and an improved dock at Cold Bay would be effective. It has also been pointed out that during periods of harsh weather a road would be impossible to travel under any circumstances including medical evacuations. Especially now, given increased funding for infrastructure projects, building a breakwater and improved dock at Cold Bay is a much better solution.

 

Despite this thorough analysis, the Trump Administration pursued a road. The first attempted Izembek land exchange by the Trump administration, which had no public comment period or serious study, was struck down in our Alaska District Court. 

 

Before Secretary Haaland is yet another Trump Administration land exchange, which was also finalized with no public input. Like the other land exchange proposals, this would seriously harm wildlife and subsistence resources.

 

As Secretary of Interior, Haaland’s primary responsibility in this situation is to protect the integrity of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the important role it plays in support of sustainable subsistence uses over a vast area of western and northern Alaska. She is also responsible for fulfilling the mandates of ANILCA, which Secretary Bernhardt clearly violated.

 

Secretary Haaland should not become the first Secretary in history to allow a road to be built through designated Wilderness, which also harms subsistence. Much better alternatives exist.

  

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For more information, see the following:

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Fran worked as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska from 1974 to 2002. He first helped to compile biological information in support of the legislative action leading to passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which set aside over 100 million acres as National Parks, Refuges, Wilderness Areas and Wild Rivers. Following passage of the Act, he was a wildlife biologist at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for over 20 years. An outspoken advocate for Wilderness, Fran’s writings have appeared in various media sources and publications opposing proposed oil development in the Arctic Refuge, building a road through the Izembek Wilderness and several other threats to public lands in Alaska. He is the Representative of Wilderness Watch’s Alaska Chapter, and a former WW board member.
Recent Comments
Guest — Ingrid Bucher
No roads should be allowed in wilderness areas. This is very important to all of us.
Thursday, 12 May 2022 14:28
Guest — Steve Hylton
Definitely no road through this crown jewel, if I have to I will stand in the way of bulldozers if this gets built
Wednesday, 11 May 2022 21:47
Guest — Theresa Acerro
This land needs to be protected. NO roads. the right decision was initially made. Do not allow this to be reversed. Shame on the ... Read More
Tuesday, 10 May 2022 17:49
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What is Wilderness Without its Wolves?

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What is Wilderness Without its Wolves?

By Franz Camenzind

 

For millennia, wolves have occupied nearly all the lands now designated as Wilderness in the western US, with the exception of coastal California. Yet today, fewer than two score of the approximately 540 Wildernesses west of the 100th meridian (not including Alaska’s 48) can claim some number of wolves as residents and only a dozen or so harbor wolves in numbers sufficient to be considered sustainable—in either the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Central Idaho Wildlands or Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Arguably, the long-term sustainability of wolves in other Wilderness areas is at risk due to the limited security provided by those smaller, often isolated landscapes.

The Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as a place where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humankind, retains its primeval character and where natural conditions are preserved. Simply stated, Wilderness is meant to exist with minimal human interference. Yet within the vast majority of Wilderness areas, the wolf, the apex species with profound ecosystem influence, is now absent—an absence due entirely to the relentless killing by humankind.

We need look no farther than Yellowstone National Park to witness the influence wolves have on an ecosystem. The park’s wolves were exterminated by the early 1900s, ostensibly to protect the park’s favored elk herds. What followed was not surprising—an overabundance of elk which led to deleterious impacts to vegetation, particularly lower elevation riparian and willow communities.

Since the reintroduction of wolves to the park in the mid-1990s, elk numbers have dropped to levels most ecologists agree resemble something near carrying capacity. Similarly, park wolf numbers stabilized around 100, after initial highs of 150-170. With the wolf’s return, the park ecosystem is showing signs of reaching a dynamic equilibrium beneficial to all components. It’s not an exaggeration to say that wolves were instrumental in returning the park’s wildlands nearer to their primeval conditions.

Wolves hold apex status, in part, because of their far-ranging hunting behavior. Yellowstone-area wolf packs hunt in territories ranging from 185-310 square miles. Besides being smaller, the Yellowstone elk herd is more dispersed and spends less time in the lower elevation meadows and riparian-willow communities.

Most ecologists agree that the wolf’s collective impact on elk is contributing to the resurgence of the willow communities, which in turn is witnessing an increase in avian biodiversity and density. The revitalization of Yellowstone’s northern range willow communities has also enabled an increase in the beaver population, leading to positive changes to stream ecology, thus benefitting aquatic invertebrates and the fisheries. 

Many of the ecological changes brought about by the wolf’s return may take years if not decades to recognize and fully understand. But one thing is clear, today’s Yellowstone and the Wildernesses harboring robust wolf populations more closely resemble their primeval character than those lacking wolves. Wolves may just be nature’s best wilderness stewards.

Three states now account for the majority of the west’s wolves: Idaho (1,556), Montana (1,220) and Wyoming (347). Another 351 are tallied for Washington (178) and Oregon (173). Mexican Gray Wolves occur in two states: New Mexico (114) and Arizona (72). Combined, approximately 3,660 wolves currently reside west of the 100th meridian—a number that pales to the 250,000 to 2 million estimated to have resided in the entire United States before the European invasion. However, the current numbers are better than the few dozen residing in northwest Montana three decades ago, which were a result of wolves immigrating from Canada. 

Today’s bad news is that wolves in Idaho and Montana are once again facing the vigilante actions of the 1800s. Both state legislatures recently passed draconian legislation with the stated objective of reducing wolf numbers to near 150—the number at which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will take over wolf management as per the states’ wolf management agreements in effect since Endangered Species Act protections were taken away from wolves.

The new legislation authorizes the state commissions to allow wolf-killing by pretty much any means imaginable: the use of traps and snares, unlimited quotas, extended hunting and trapping seasons, and in Idaho, night time hunting, aerial gunning and killing pups in dens. Idaho also designated $200,000 dollars to “cover expenses incurred” by private individuals while killing wolves—essentially imposing a bounty on wolves.

Idaho’s and Montana’s aggressive wolf-killing legislation has been temporarily dampened a bit by the states’ wildlife commissions which have some leeway when setting annual wolf hunting and trapping regulations. For instance, this season, Montana is limiting the open-ended quotas written into their legislation. But the intent and goals remain unchanged—it may just take a few more years to achieve those goals. Ironically, that means more wolves will be killed because each year the survivors will produce young, thus replenishing their numbers, resulting in “a need” to kill more wolves to reach the 150 goal. 

State wildlife agencies manage wolves by the numbers, ignoring the fact that wolves are one of the most social species on the planet, and function and survive not as individuals, but as members of highly structured packs. Consequently, intense, random killing can cause packs to break up, resulting in diminished hunting efficiency and pushing wolves toward easier prey, such as livestock.

Today, wolves and the wilderness ecosystems they inhabit are imminently threatened by these irresponsible state efforts to kill upwards of 90 percent of their wolf populations, including within Wilderness. A weakened or removed apex species inevitably results in a weakened ecological system. If this barbaric killing is allowed to proceed, ecosystem function and wilderness protection will be pushed back decades.

Wilderness Watch continues to fight for Wilderness and its wolves. On December 6, Wilderness Watch and a dozen allies filed a lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction against the State of Idaho over its barbaric new wolf-killing laws. This followed a June 2021 Notice of Intent to sue Idaho and Montana for their new anti-wolf statues. We’ve petitioned the US Department of Agriculture to promulgate rules or issue closure orders preventing certain killing methods, hired killers, and paying bounties in Wilderness. Wilderness Watch also joined a petition authored by Western Watersheds Project to relist wolves under the Endangered Species Act in light of the new, aggressive wolf-killing statutes. In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will undertake a status review of the gray wolf over the next 12 months.

 

A Wilderness denied of its wolves is a wounded Wilderness. If wolves can’t be allowed live in Wilderness, where can they live? Wilderness Watch will continue to do all it can to protect this critical, symbiotic relationship and the ecological integrity of Wilderness itself.

 

Franz Camenzind is a wildlife biologist turned filmmaker and environmental activist who recently retired from the WW Board after serving 6 years.

 

Wolf

Recent Comments
Guest — Harriet Greene
How can anyone kill a wolf! It's murder. They don't have a voice, but we do!
Tuesday, 15 February 2022 00:30
Guest — Rene Suarez
Many messages here mention there appreaciation of wolves, which is great, but consider that wolves are not that compatible with ra... Read More
Friday, 28 January 2022 04:09
Guest — Els den Hoed
Wolves are beautifull and very important to the total envirement of nature. They keep everything in balance! So no more hunts,pois... Read More
Monday, 10 January 2022 03:57
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