Skilak in the crosshairs — Hunters, refuge clash over proposed predator hunt

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Moose populations have declined on the Kenai Peninsula, which biologists attribute primarily to decreased habitat. The Alaska Board of Game has directed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to draw up a plan for aerial hunting of wolves on the peninsula as a predator-control effort to boost moose numbers.

File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. The Skilak Lake area is a wilderness wonderland, home to wolves, bears and myriad other animals. It’s also home to an argument between the Alaska Board of Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over hunting regulations in the area.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The Skilak Lake area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife wonderland, home to many of the Kenai Peninsula’s animal species, including bears, wolves, moose, lynx, coyote, grouse and hares. It’s also easily accessible to the peninsula’s other large mammal population — humans. And though humans agree that the Skilak area is a good spot for finding wild animals, they don’t always agree on what should be done with them.

On one side are hunters seeking winter predator hunting opportunities in the Skilak area, backed by the Alaska Board of Game. On the other are those wanting to see the area continue to be prioritized toward wildlife viewing, photography and other “non-consumptive uses,” backed by the standing refuge management plan.

At issue is whether the refuge will approve a proposal passed by the Board of Game in its March meeting in Kenai. Proposal 159 called for opening the Skilak Loop Road area for firearms hunting of wolf, coyote and lynx from Nov. 10 through March 31 (though lynx season only runs through Jan. 31). Areas within a quarter of a mile of the road, campgrounds, boat launches and other developments would continue to be closed to hunting, and the ban on snowmachines would remain in effect.

The Board of Game approved the proposal, citing that there is no conservation concern for the species that would be targeted, and that hunting in this area would not pose a conflict with other area uses, since the hunting season would be in the winter and the vast majority of visitation to the Skilak area is in the spring and summer.

But Skilak is on refuge land, about 2 percent of the nearly 2 million-acre refuge spanning a swath of the upper and central Kenai Peninsula, giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say on what hunting is or isn’t allowed. That area in particular — sandwiched between the north shore of Skilak Lake to the Sterling Highway, was designated as the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area in 1985, to be managed to prioritize “non-consumptive” uses.

“A decision was made back in the 1980s that this would be one area of the refuge that the primary emphasis for management would be to provide for wildlife viewing, environmental education and interpretation. We came to an agreement with the (Alaska) Department of Fish and Game at the time on hunting and trapping restrictions for the area to support those objectives, because we recognized that they were fundamentally, foundationally important,” said Andy Loranger, KNWR manager.

The U.S. FWS announced in July its intent to continue its management plan for the Skilak area as is — meaning the proposal to open the area to predator hunting would not be allowed. Two hearings were scheduled in Soldotna and Anchorage to allow the public to comment on that decision, and written comments are being accepted through Aug. 16. Once comments are reviewed, a final decision will be issued.

At the public hearing July 31 at the Donald E. Gilman River Center in Soldotna, speakers represented both sides of the issue. Those supportive of maintaining the current management of the Skilak area spoke of the value of having an area prioritized for wildlife viewing, education and interpretation.

“This area is probably the most heavily used area of the refuge, even though it’s only 2 percent of the refuge lands,” said David Raskin, speaking on behalf of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and the Wilderness Society. “… Almost 2 million acres of refuge are currently open to hunting, including wolves, coyote and lynx. … It would be a travesty to jeopardize all of this for the special interest of a very relatively few hunters who currently have 98 percent of the refuge available for their consumptive activities.”

John Wade said that, while he thinks hunting and wildlife viewing activities can coexist in many instances, he would rather see the current management plan for the Skilak area remain unchanged, as he thinks hunting — even in the tourism offseason — could be detrimental to wildlife viewing.

“Hunting tends to discourage wildlife from frequenting an area, and lynx are obviously best viewed in winter,” he said

Walter Ward, another hunter and longtime area resident, also spoke in favor of keeping the hunting restrictions in place, concurring that hunting pressure could limit viewing opportunities.

“Most wildlife is pretty good at figuring out when it’s being pursued and shot at. That’s the reason why I (endorse) having one small portion of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that’s a very accessible portion by car, boat and hiking. An area that tourists and local residents can be able to go to have increased opportunities to observe wildlife that’s less wary, perhaps, than other areas where they’re typically being hunted or pursued,” Ward said.

Richard Johnston, a retired pilot for the U.S. FWS, said that any increase in hunting success in that area could decrease viewing opportunities.

“Every lynx that’s shot is a footprint that some kid is not going to see,” he said.

File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A lynx makes a brief appearance off of Skilak Lake Road. As the hare population on the Kenai Peninsula increases, so do lynx numbers.

File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A lynx makes a brief appearance off of Skilak Lake Road.

John Toppenberg, of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, spoke of seeing a wolf from Skilak Loop Road, and of a woman who videotaped a lynx with four kittens there. He also cautioned that every animal in the Skilak area harvested in hunting, or made additionally wary of humans from hunting pressure, is an animal essentially taken away from potential viewing.

“Had hunting been allowed, even if it was hunting much earlier (in the year), certainly the first animals to go would be the animals nearest the road, and I think there’s virtually no chance that either of those animals would have been there. Maintaining the status quo is of great value to those of us in that 86 percent (of nonhunters) here in Alaska,” Toppenberg said.

Those supportive of the proposal, though, shot back that there would be no conflict among Skilak users.

“These people that are testifying about the viewing and maintaining the natural area, you are so right. Absolutely, and we are all for that. But there is no conflict there, there is no recorded conflict,” said Elaina Spraker.

Bob Ermold, who sits on the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Board, pointed to Swanson River Road in Sterling as an example of a recreational area — with lakes, campgrounds, cabins and canoe trails — that also is open to hunting.

“What documentation do you have that this would be a conflict to have these hunting groups involved in this activity during the same time that other groups are utilizing it? The other areas where you can predator call and there are other users, like Swanson River Road, what history of conflicts are there? Show me some documentation of conflicts. There’s not any, so why do they think it’s suddenly going to occur here? It’s a time of year when it’s minimally used by other user groups,” Ermold said.

Loren Reese, who submitted the proposal to the Board of Game, said he did so as a way to increase access for predator hunters.

“There is very limited road access in (Game Management) Unit 15A for predator hunting altogether,” he wrote in the proposal. If it is not approved, “There will continue to be an underutilized hunting opportunity for people whom enjoy predator hunting.”

Reese said that the number of predator hunters on the peninsula, and their impact, is minimal.

“As a predator hunter I can tell you, on the Kenai, we’re a very, very small group. We do go in quietly, without snowmachines, walking in, leaving no environmental tracks. So I don’t quite understand why the refuge is so adamant against uses such as this when we leave such a small impact, if any at all,” he said.

Even though he hunts avidly, he said he does not harvest many animals, and does not expect that opening Skilak to predator hunting would result in many animals taken. Predator hunting is quite challenging on the Kenai.

“I kill one wolf a year. You have to call them into you, you have to beat their eyes, their nose, their ears, their intelligence, to even get a chance to see them,” he said.

Reese said that, in writing the proposal, he put a lot of thought into avoiding conflicts with other users — that’s why the proposed hunt opening would be in the winter, when mostly just dog mushers use the road, and close March 31, long before the spring recreation season begins. The Board of Game also spent considerable deliberation to make sure the proposal wouldn’t pose conflicts, Reese said. So it’s frustrating to have it be rejected by the U.S. FWS. Other speakers July 31 echoed that frustration.

“The Wilderness Act of 1964 states that Congress would designate areas to be administered for use and enjoyment of the American people, in such a manner as to leave them unimpaired for the future use and enjoyment as wilderness. I think what you guys are doing here, I think Theodore Roosevelt would turn in his grave. You guys have done nothing but impair hunting and fishing in these respects, and that was one of the two top reasons he enacted this to begin with. I’m very sorry to see this go this way, and I hope we can do something to change that,” said Joe Mandurano.

Bigger than Skilak

The Skilak predator hunt issue is but one of many skirmishes in a larger battle that’s been brewing between the Alaska Board of Game and KNWR management. Moose populations have declined precipitously on the Kenai since the last large wildfires, over 40 years ago, in large part because of a lack of abundant food.

Board members and local hunters, chief among them board Chair Ted Spraker, a retired Kenai-area Fish and Game wildlife biologist, have been vocal about wanting the refuge to conduct habitat enhancement projects to rejuvenate maturing forests to increase new growth, which makes for good moose browse. But refuge management says it’s not so easy — mechanical enhancement projects are expensive, and conducting controlled burns or allowing naturally caused wildfires to burn is dangerous to the peninsula’s expanding settlement footprint and taxing on statewide firefighting resources.

In lieu of habitat enhancement, the Board of Game has turned its attention to predator control as a way to help boost moose populations, passing several measures in recent years expanding hunting and trapping of bears and wolves, and allowing aerial shooting of wolves. But predator control doesn’t jibe with the dictates of the refuge management plan, and so it has not been allowed on refuge lands. That essentially takes the teeth out of any predator control measures passed by the Board of Game, since the refuge makes up about 80 percent of the land in Unit 15A.

“Our legal responsibilities, when you look at our mandate, it’s just not consistent with implementation of the intensive manipulation of predator populations for the singular purpose of trying to provide increased moose populations for harvest. As an example, all Alaska refuges have a purpose to manage all fish and wildlife in their natural diversity,” Loranger said.

Designated wilderness areas, which constitute 65 percent of the KNWR, have specific legal requirements, Loranger said.

“By law, and the policy in place, it’s a designation that requires us to limit the manipulation of natural processes. The apex predator-ungulate relationship is a foundational ecological process in our Arctic ecosystems, and so there’s definitely a conflict (with the state’s intensive predator-management statute),” he said.

Though the testimony at the July 31 hearing in Soldotna didn’t characterize the Skilak hunting proposal as being meant as predator control, the way it’s written does.

“The cow moose hunt in this area was just closed due to very low population numbers for moose in this specific area. While there appears to be an adequate food supply for moose in the area, the population continues to drop due to predation from wolves, coyote and bear. By not allowing full access to predator hunting in this area during the critical winter months, hunters are not being allowed to help balance the moose and predator populations,” Reese’s proposal text states.

At the Board of Game meeting in March and the public hearing on the Skilak proposal, hunters have been venting their frustration over the refuge not getting on-board with Board of Game actions.

“It looks like this has been kind of a closed door here, and I don’t think it’s been a true open process that has allowed that collaboration and open exchange back and forth,” Ermold said.

Spraker said that, back when he was working for Fish and Game, there was a lot more collaboration with the refuge than there is now, including habitat enhancement projects and working together to establish caribou herds on the Kenai.

“We did a lot of really good conservation-type projects together,” Spraker said.

But it feels now like decisions on the KNWR are being dictated from Washington, D.C.

“The sentiment today was how this federal system is changing more towards how we do it Outside,” Spraker said of a meeting with lawmakers and government officials in Anchorage on Aug. 12 and 13 about what they see as federal overreach into Alaska affairs. “… The trend with the refuge is more toward preservationist ideology, rather than conservation.”

From the refuge perspective, though, it’s the Board of Game and hunters’ sentiments that have been changing, not refuge policy. When the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area was established, refuge management and Fish and Game worked together to set hunting and trapping restrictions for the area. When the state wanted to change regulations, including in the Skilak area, in 2005, the refuge and Fish and Game agreed to hold off until the refuge could conduct an update of its management plan for the area — a lengthy process including public input.

Through that update, completed in 2007, the refuge, “reaffirmed the direction and the objectives for that area, the importance of the long-term hunting and trapping restrictions,” Loranger said.

But the refuge did agree to allow a youth-only firearms hunt for small game.

“Our decision was to maintain the long-term restrictions with the exception of the addition of the youth hunt, and that was a short five, six years ago,” Loranger said. “Here we are less than six years later and the same thing is happening all over again. Well, we’re not going to do another management plan five years down the road.”

The refuge may be perceived as “becoming” anti-hunting — a sentiment voiced in public comments — but according to Johnston, it’s more that the perspective of hunters and the Board of Game is changing, while the refuge is remaining consistent in its management plan.

“An increasingly activist game board that is operating increasingly in bad faith has departed from the longstanding and relatively successful federal, state and public cooperation that’s been utilized for a balanced approach, particularly germane to the Skilak area. The FWS does have the primary responsibility for this area and it’s their fiduciary responsibility to implement the existing plans. To not do so they’d have to go back and redo the (environmental impact process) which would be a big process,” he said.

But times are changing and moose populations are changing. To Spraker, the Board of Game is trying to do something about it, and the refuge isn’t keeping up.

“You can’t even talk to them about moose habitat-enhancement projects. The board passed five proposals for the Kenai, and the Fish and Wildlife Service will oppose and not allow any of these hunting opportunities on the refuge, except for probably only one (changing antler requirements on harvestable moose). And that’s it. It’s changing times, sadly enough.”

To the refuge, it’s time for balance.

“We’re not really doing anything differently than administering hunting or trapping on the refuge than we have for the last 30 years. The difference is that there’s an increasing conflict with how the state is doing things. And that’s being characterized that we’re increasingly anti-hunting, but I can assure you that we’re not anti-hunting, we’re very supportive of hunting,” Loranger said. “We’re trying to ensure that our legal mandates are met but we’re also very interested in a balanced approach, balancing the fact that we must provide opportunities for people to enjoy and experience wildlife and wildlands in a variety of ways, and that’s exactly what the Skilak issue is all about.”

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One response to “Skilak in the crosshairs — Hunters, refuge clash over proposed predator hunt

  1. Pingback: Alaska Board of Game Proposes Predator Hunting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge's Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area | Support a Federal Wildlife Conservation Stamp

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