State Sues Federal Agency for Blocking Caribou Preservation Plan
May 28, 2010
Anchorage, Alaska – The State of Alaska today filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for blocking a proposed predator control action on Unimak Island intended to preserve a caribou herd that is on the brink of dying out.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, asserts that the federal agency has violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and a Memorandum of Understanding with the State of Alaska.
Among numerous actions aimed at preventing the state from carrying out its plan to preserve the herd, federal officials on May 24 threatened immediate criminal prosecution of any state employees who would "trespass" within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which covers almost all of Unimak Island.
The state seeks a preliminary injunction allowing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in June to remove seven wolves, the number determined by biologists as necessary to merely maintain the caribou herd in its current depleted condition while the lawsuit proceeds.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service erected obstacle after obstacle over a period of five months to prevent us from carrying out the state constitutional mandate to manage our resources for the maximum benefit of our people," said Governor Sean Parnell. "It's part of a pattern in which federal agencies are usurping state prerogatives, potentially constricting our future, and they're doing it while violating their own rules and regulations, as well as their prior agreements with us."
Unimak Island, the eastern-most in the Aleutian chain, is home to the nation's only naturally occurring insular caribou herd. The herd numbered 1,260 in 2002, but has shrunk to about 400 animals. In addition to the two-thirds decline in overall population, the bull-to-cow ratio is now about 5-to-100, the lowest level ever recorded in Alaska, leaving about 20 bulls on the island.
For these reasons, Fish and Game determined that action during the 2010 calving season might be the last chance for averting the ultimate loss of the entire herd, which has been the primary source of subsistence red meat within a 400-mile radius.
Fish and Game notified the federal refuge manager of the emergency in a letter on December 22, 2009. But subsequent communications and meetings failed to persuade federal officials to permit a wolf take before a lengthy environmental review could be completed by an outside contractor, despite documents prepared by Fish and Game that were compliant with the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act. Finally, the May 24 letter from Fish and Wildlife ended the matter with a threat to refer to the U.S. attorney any state employees who take actions to preserve the herd.
"The actions of Fish and Wildlife have set the stage for the worst possible outcome – the potential disappearance of this caribou herd and a total loss of subsistence opportunity in the area for the foreseeable future," sai Denby Lloyd, commissioner of Fish and Game. "We pushed as hard as we could, recognizing that time was running out fast, but I wasn't going to put my employees into a situation in which the federal government prosecutes them for carrying out their state responsibilities."
"We weren't going to fall into the trap of seeing state employees exposed to prosecution," said Attorney General Dan Sullivan. "But this threat forced our hand. We have no choice but to sue. And we believe we have a strong case for injunctive relief."
- The state's complaint for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief - PDF(66K)
- The memorandum in support of motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction - PDF(80K)
For more information, contact Bill McAllister, Department of Law, (907)269-4179, Kevin Saxby, Department of Law, (907)269-5250, or Corey Rossi, Department of Fish and Game, (907)267-2147.
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