Tuesday marked an obscure anniversary in American history: It was 114 years to the day after President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge, in Pelican Island, Fla.
Countless birds had been slaughtered in the area for their feathers, and the federal designation stopped the mass killings. Now, more than 560 wildlife refuges across the country have been set aside, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, “for wildlife first.”
Yet the meaning of that phrase was muddied in the minds of many conservationists on the refuge system’s anniversary this year.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted to repeal a rule created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last summer to end some controversial hunting practices in national wildlife refuges in Alaska. The measure now awaits the signature of President Trump.
Acting under the rarely used Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress by a majority vote to overturn rules approved by federal agencies within 60 legislative days of their adoption, the Senate restored policies adopted by Alaska game officials to increase the number of animals such as moose and caribou — prized by hunters — by making it easier to kill the animals that prey on them.
State policies allow the killing of bear cubs and sows, killing wolves and their cubs in their dens, baiting grizzly bears, shooting bears from aircraft, shooting bears in baiting areas on the same day a hunter flies into a hunting area, and capturing bears with traps and snares.
The measure to remove the federal prohibition, which cleared the House in February, was sponsored there by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, the chamber’s longest-serving Republican and a longtime critic of federal hunting restrictions on public lands in Alaska.
Young and other Alaska lawmakers cast the issue as a matter of states’ rights and preservation of traditional subsistence hunting.
“In Alaska, many hunt for survival, both personal and cultural,” said Sen. Daniel Sullivan, a fellow Republican, after the vote. “Alaskans have been able to maintain these strong and life-sustaining traditions through a rigorous scientific process that allows for public participation and ensures we manage our fish and game for sustainability, as required by the Alaska Constitution.”
But the measure, which was approved largely along party lines in both chambers, met loud opposition from Democrats, who noted that refuges are federal land, that scientific studies question whether killing predators will substantially increase other game, and that predators are a key part of healthy ecosystems.
Conservation groups sharply criticized the Senate vote.
“Rolling back protections for predators defies everything wildlife refuges stand for,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email. “Refuges are places where we celebrate biological diversity, not where wolves and bears are inhumanely killed for no good reason. It’s an outrage that Congress would revoke rules that stop the senseless slaughter of predators, heedless of the important role these animals play in healthy ecosystems.”
Alaska has 16 national wildlife refuges that occupy nearly 77 million acres, far more than any other state.
Roosevelt himself was an avid hunter, but he was also famous for not killing one bear in particular. In 1902, on a hunting trip to Mississippi, one of his assistants captured a black bear and chained it to a tree to make it easier to shoot.
“Viewing this as extremely unsportsmanlike,” the National Park Service wrote on its website, “Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear.”
The story of Roosevelt’s restraint enamored the press and the public and inspired the name of a new stuffed animal toy, the “teddy bear.”