Recently, a popular bird watching and photography location in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) faced a challenge that would have opened the area to predator hunting, an area that since its creation has been open only to non-consumptive uses. The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area is approximately 2 percent of Kenai NWR  and was set aside specifically for wildlife viewing and conservation education. Back in March, a proposal submitted by Loren Reese was approved by the Alaska  Board of Game that would have changed these usage priorities.

The Alaska Board of Game‘s (BOG) main role is “to conserve and develop Alaska’s wildlife resources. This includes establishing open and closed seasons, areas for taking game, setting bag limits; and regulating methods and means. The board is also involved with setting policy and direction for the management of the state’s wildlife resources. The board is charged with making allocative decisions, and the Department of Fish and Game is responsible for management based on those decisions1.”

Luckily for the people of Alaska, Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area is on refuge land, giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) say so on what hunting is or isn’t allowed. The refuge spans nearly 2 million acres and covers a swath of land on the upper and central Kenai Peninsula. About 2 percent of the refuge is an area sandwiched between the north shore of Skilak Lake and the Sterling Highway. It was designated the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area in 1985, managed to give  “non-consumptive” uses priority on that land.2

Skilak SWildlife Recreation Area Map

According to refuge manager Andy Loranger, “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.2

Proposal 159, submitted to the BOG by an avid predator hunter by the name of Loren Reese, called for opening the Skilak Loop Road area for firearms hunting of wolf, coyote and lynx from November 10th through March 31st (though lynx season only runs through January 31st). 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.

Reese’s proposal also states “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.”

Interesting that the Board of Game want to open this area to hunting Lynx as well. The Canada Lynx’s (Lynx canadensis) diet is almost exclusive to, and dependent on, snowshoe hares and their numbers. It will also hunt medium-sized mammals and birds if hare numbers fall,3 but nowhere do you find information on these wildlcats hunting Moose.

When Reese submitted the proposal to the Board of Game, he said that he did so as a way to increase access for predator hunters. Loren also stated that Kenai predator hunting is challenging and that he does not harvest many animals. For this reason he said he does not expect that opening Skilak to predator hunting would result in many animals taken and he “didn’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.2

First — and significantly — Loren Reese is misrepresenting his own personal challenges with predator hunting, essentially negating his own primary argument. His own YouTube channel shows him killing several predators using his own proprietary game call. He also uses an electronic FoxPro decoy to call in and kill an Alaskan Wolf  in a matter of twenty minutes. (If you enjoy watching coyote, wolf, bear and lynx roaming unencumbered in the wild, I recommend that you do not view any of Mr. Reese’s videos).

Second, this minuscule percentage of the refuge is the only portion open exclusively for non-consumptive uses. David Raskin, speaking on behalf of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and The Wilderness Society, pointed out that ”This area is probably the most heavily used area of the refuge, even though it’s only 2 percent of the refuge lands. Almost 2 million acres of refuge are 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.”

Kenai NWR Map

At the public hearing July 31 at the Donald E. Gilman River Center in Soldotna, speakers represented both sides of the issue. Those supporting current management spoke of the value of having an area prioritized for wildlife viewing, education and interpretation.2 The view that any increase in hunting success in that area could diminish viewing opportunities was also voiced by hunters and other local residents.

Walter Ward, one of these local residents who is also a hunter, stated “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 very accessible by car, boat and hiking — an area that tourists and local residents can go to have increased opportunities to observe wildlife that’s less wary.2

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 were accepted through August 16th.2

We realize there are many difficult and complex decisions involving Refuge land use priorities but this should not be one of them. Decisions to preserve just 2 percent of any Refuge for wildlife viewing exclusively, with limitless benefits for both humans and wildlife concerned, shouldn’t even be questioned.

We applaud the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager, Andy Loranger, for his decision to stand firm on the 2007 scientifically based management plan agreed upon by the refuge management and Fish & Game, and we thank him for recognizing the critical importance of wildlife, wildlife viewing, and non-consumptive uses in the broader spectrum of Refuge land allocation.

You can read the original Redoubt Reporter article by Jenny Neyman here.

More on this issue:

What can you do to keep the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area closed to hunting? Contact the Commissioner of Fish & Game and tell her how important wildlife viewing is to you.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Guide

References: 1Alaska Board of Game , 2Alaska Dispatch, 3Wikipedia

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