The US federal government has been accused of simultaneously paying to protect endangered species while funding state-organized hunts of large, endangered predators, like gray wolves and grizzly bears, that increase the likelihood of their extinction.
A coalition of more than 35 animal welfare and Indigenous groups in late 2021 formally petitioned the US Department of the Interior to develop rules to withhold money from state agencies that fund the “slaughters”. But the department has not responded to the petition, the groups allege.
The coalition renewed their call in the wake of a June Alaska department of fish and game operation in which hunters gunned down 94 brown bears, five black bears and five wolves from helicopters. In a 23 August 2023 letter to Deb Haaland, the department of interior secretary, the coalition wrote that the “extinction crisis is not an abstraction; it is a clear and present danger and an impending catastrophe”.
It added: “The [department of the interior] is tasked with preventing extinctions, using sound science when making decisions to prevent those extinctions, and with being accountable to the entire public – not funding controversial predator-control actions for the purported benefit of a few.”
The letter also detailed the controversial “Judas wolf” tactic in which Alaska state agents put radio collars on wolves who return to their packs, which hunters then kill.
Similar hunts have been carried out in Wisconsin, Montana and Idaho, and state game agencies claim the kills are conservation efforts designed to boost thinned herds of caribou, moose, elk and other prey hunted by large predators.
In a statement to the Guardian, the interior department claimed federal money is not used for the kills. Spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the allegation that the department funded state kills was “wildly inaccurate”.
But the coalition said the interior department’s statement is misleading. Federal money cannot be used to purchase bullets or guns for the hunts, which are paid for with state money, said Jeff Ruch, an attorney with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer) non-profit.
But federal funds can be used to organize the operation and monitor the results, he added.
“Our petition is to change the rules so they can look at the whole state program and whether states are doing things that undermine federal policy and should be made unfundable,” Ruch said.
The federal money that goes to state agencies with the purpose of protecting wildlife is raised through gun and fishing tackle sales taxes. As much as $1bn is distributed to state agencies via the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the interior department, and the funds make up between one-third and two-thirds of state game agency budgets, Ruch said.
The rule-making petition aims to deny federal wildlife management funding to states that carry out the kills, and give scientists and conservation groups the ability to comment if a predator kill is proposed. That condition is currently required under law but lacks an enforcement mechanism, and the proposed rule would fill that hole, Peer attorneys said.
“We’re looking for leverage for the federal government to crack down on rogue states that are doing these crazy predator kills,” said the Peer attorney Chandra Rosenthal. “This is a tool in the tool belt to exert pressure to protect endangered species.”
Though the coalition said it has not received a response to its petition, Schwartz, the interior department spokesperson, said Haaland had responded in a 2022 letter. The department would not immediately provide the letter to he Guardian but noted it is subject to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Peer attorneys said they were unaware of the letter, and Ruch said it was “odd” that the interior department would consider a letter a “response” to a rule-making petition. Federal agencies have three options in responding to a petition – adopt it as a rule, reject it or request additional information – and the interior department has not taken any of those steps, Ruch said.
Rosenthal said Haaland has twice canceled meetings with groups within the coalition, though Schwartz said there was no record of Haaland canceling. Fish and wildlife officials who have met with the coalition said any decision on the issue would have to come from further up the command chain, Rosenthal said.
She noted the federal government has taken similar steps in the past. It has withheld road funding for states that did not enforce federally recommended speed limits, and in Minnesota the interior department withheld funds from the state’s department of natural resources over timber issues.
The groups also say predator kills do little to boost prey populations. Adrian Treves, a predator-prey ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who sits on Peer’s board, said no proper studies exist on whether the hunts protect livestock. Rather, more studies have been conducted on how the kills affect populations of caribou, moose, elk and other wildlife, and a 2020 meta analysis of available science found little evidence that they increase populations.
Research shows two much bigger factors in herd health are weather and habitat, Treves said, but hunts are still pushed by state game agencies because “hunter perception is a big part of it, and their attitudes are typically negative toward predators”.
The hunts also seem to be more of a political and cultural issue, Rosenthal said.
“It seems like it’s part of the rightwing agenda to be able to do whatever they want on public lands, and they’re sticking it to the libs,” she said.
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This article by Tom Perkins was first published by The Guardian on 31 August 2023. Lead Image: A brown bear mother eats her catch as her cubs come running on 11 August 2023 at Brooks Falls within Alaska’s vast Katmai National Park and Preserve. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images.