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Alaska scientists now among the people banned from federal wildlife refuges

Craig Medred
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell with President Obama. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has asked Jewell to explain the inconsistency in how Interior Department agencies have handled the management of undeveloped public lands in Alaska during the federal government shutdown. Courtesy: Pete Souza, White House

Scientists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have joined average Americans in the class of folks now banned from their own country's national wildlife refuges.

Until the federal government shutdown is over, state wildlife biologists are prohibited from venturing onto an area about the size of the state of Nevada, according to Larry Bell, acting deputy regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. The reasons are unclear.

"We are not able to allow state management activities on national wildlife refuge lands during the government shutdown caused by a lapse in appropriations," Bell said in a Thursday email to Alaska Director of Wildlife Doug Vincent-Lang, who was baffled by the action. The state, he said, already has federal permits for all studies on refuges. For locations it has similar arrangements with the National Park Service to study, permits are being honored.

'Absolutely no reason for this'  

When Park officials were sent home on furlough, he said, park officials actually gave state scientists the keys to a park cabin in Northwest Alaska so they would have some place to stay while doing research. "You gotta wonder what's going on," Vincent-Lang said. "There's absolutely no reason for this."

Bell did not answer phone calls or emails sent to his office Friday; his email account was working earlier this week.

On Wednesday, according to records obtained by Alaska Dispatch, Vincent-Lang messaged Bell, wanting advice on how the refuge closure might affect Fish and Game operations.

"Larry," the message said, "I was reading your closure order. My read of it indicates that since refuge lands are closed to entry it prohibits us from entry to conduct routine research and management activities. Is this read correct?  I don’t want our staff arrested for illegal entry. We have several activities planned so I need an answer relatively quickly."

The next day, Bell messaged that "your read of the letter is correct."

Bell did, however, offer to help state officials get into a storage safe in Dillingham, a community in the Western part of the state, where drugs for immobilizing wildlife are kept. Some wildlife studies require animals to be darted with tranquilizers before being fitted with radio-collars.

"I understand that there is a need to access a storage vault or safe at Dillingham in order to provide safe storage of immobilization drugs and that the storage vault is maintained on refuge property," Bell wrote. "We can allow the use of the vault as a health-and-safety issue during your capture operations."

Official double-speak

Federal land managers in the 49th state have used the "health-and-safety issue" in a number of cases to try to circumvent orders from Washington, D.C., that ordered all U.S. wildlife refuges closed. Boat ramps along the Kenai River in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge south of Anchorage have been kept open for safety even though refuge officials have said the boat launches are closed, which has led to some interesting official double-speak.

Officially, federal officials say the refuge is "closed." Unofficially, they admit the boat launches remain open for "safety" reasons. People aren't supposed to drive in and use the launches, but they can.

And if that isn't confusing enough, there's more.

Bell earlier this week messaged the state that "all refuge lands have been closed to all activity except subsistence...."

"Subsistence," as defined by the federal government, is hunting, fishing or gathering by rural Alaska residents. Rural Alaska residents are basically those Alaskans living outside the greater Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau areas.

So the 72 million acres of refuge lands in Alaska closed to the public are really only closed to Alaskans from urban areas, or visitors to Alaska from the Lower 48 states, except that it appears refuge officials are also generally overlooking that closure as well.

Nobody asked to leave

There have been no reports of anyone being asked to leave a refuge or National Park Service lands in Alaska, as has happened in the Lower 48, where both the refuges and parks are closed. For instance, Arizona Republic Media reported 21 people have been cited for "attempting hikes or trying to sneak in through dirt roads" in Grand Canyon National Park.

That has not happened in the 49th state, and some Alaskans have expressed pleasure that all the federal actions have actually done so far is provide them with private fishing playgrounds.

Competition for the best fishing spots on the upper Kenai River dropped dramatically after fishing guides with permits to take clients onto refuge lands were asked not to do so. Most -- if not all -- appear to be abiding with the request for fear of repercussions if they don't.

The guiding shutdown spoiled the fishing trips of most tourists and a few Alaskans, but made it less crowded for others. Whether those Alaskans lucky enough to have obtained coveted permits to hunt Kodiak brown bears will have a similar experience remains to be seen.

The bear season on the big island in the Gulf of Alaska opens Oct. 25. Hunting guides with permits to use the Kodiak National Widlife Refuge, which blankets most of the island, have been told they can't guide clients there as long as the federal shutdown continues.

All non-resident hunters are required to hire a guide for safety reasons. A continuing government shutdown and refuge closure would prevent non-residents from hunting and cost guides tens of thousands of dollars.

The consequences for Alaskans are less clear. The Kodiak brown bear seasons are considered "trophy hunts" and thus fail to qualify for the subsistence exemption allowing some Alaskans to use refuges, but the blind eye turned to recreational use of the Kenai refuge would make it appear Alaskans might be allowed to hunt.

Is closure legal?

Brad Palach, the natural resources manager for state Fish and Game, refused to answer any questions as to what hunters might expect. It was Palach who first raised the issue of refuge closures in Alaska.

"Has the Alaska Region of the USFWS issued any official closure notices based on 50 CFR 36.42 or other appropriate venue?" he queried Bell on Monday. "That seems to be the only administrative mechanism to close refuge lands in Alaska to public access. Please understand that I’m not taking a potshot, just trying to seek clarification of how the closures are being administered."

Nine minutes later, Bell messaged back that everything was closed.

Vincent-Lang said the state questions whether the blanket closure of huge swaths of public land is even legal, and he added that Gov. Sean Parnell has asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to explain the inconsistency in how Interior Department agencies have handled management of undeveloped public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management left open lands under its jurisdiction. The wildlife and park service closed all lands, but the park service allowed previously permitted activities -- including guiding -- to continue.

"It makes no sense," Vincent-Lang said.

"They're just adding more fuel to the fire," said Rod Arno of the Alaska Outdoor Council, an advocacy group.

Relationships between state and federal resource managers have long been contentious in Alaska, where the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act gave federal authorities fish and wildlife management powers over more land than any other state.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com