Woody Guthrie captured something essential about our nation when he penned the classic American song, “This Land is Your Land” more than 75 years ago. He understood that one of America’s best ideas - and one of our defining values - was the decision to set aside some of our most wildlife-rich lands and waters for permanent protection for the benefit of all Americans.
Sadly, as it was in Woody’s day, this treasured American value is under assault.
Special interest groups are quietly working at the federal and state level to lay the groundwork for federally managed lands to be handed over wholesale to state or even private ownership. Others have sought to erode federal management authority piecemeal, dealing death by a thousand cuts.
Unfortunately, without the protections of federal law and the public engagement it ensures, this heritage is incredibly vulnerable.
For example, over the past several years, the Alaska Board of Game has unleashed a withering attack on bears and wolves that is wholly at odds with America’s long tradition of ethical, sportsmanlike, fair-chase hunting, in something they call “intensive predator management.” In this context, intensive means aggressive and sustained, and management means killing. In the name of hunters and hunting, they have approved shooting of brown and grizzly bears over bait; shooting mother bears with cubs, and even the cubs themselves; targeting bears and wolves from planes; and killing wolves and wolf pups in their dens.
This is not sportsmanship. It is purportedly aimed at increasing populations of caribou and moose but defies modern science of predator-prey relationships. And finally, it is inconsistent with the laws guiding management of our National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.
Managing wildlife in the United States involves a complex mix of distinct, shared and overlapping jurisdictions between states, tribes and the federal government. Mainly, and at its best, it is a cooperative and professional endeavor. We have a long history of cooperative management with the states, including Alaska, and we have deep respect and admiration for our state agency professional colleagues.
But there comes a time when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must stand up for the authorities and principles that underpin our work and say “no.” That’s why this week, we are joining our sister-agency, the National Park Service, and finalizing regulations governing predator management on Alaska refuges.
These carefully crafted regulations eschew shortsighted policies designed to benefit the few, and instead emphasize sound, long-term land and wildlife stewardship for the current and future benefit of all . They will ensure that all wildlife – including predators – gets a fair shake on Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges, for which Congress has assigned us primary authority. The State of Alaska’s predator control programs may be in line with its state mandates and programs, but they cannot be reconciled with the federal laws that guide us.
Your National Wildlife Refuges encompass more than 73 million acres in Alaska, including the nation’s largest land conservation unit – the nearly 20 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They protect largely intact and functioning ecosystems, providing havens for brown bears, caribou, wolf, and moose alike.
These lands are your lands.
They are not game farms managed for a slice of their diversity for the benefit of a few people who would call themselves hunters. Nor are they places where we can or should allow the practices authorized under Alaska’s “intensive predator management” initiative.
We do not take this action because we oppose Alaska’s strong hunting traditions. To the contrary, our regulations are designed to protect and preserve ethical, sustainable hunting for generations to come.
Like most Fish and Wildlife Service employees, I grew up fishing and hunting, and still cherish days afield with rod and gun. I am immensely proud of the vital role hunters and anglers have played in protecting and sustaining our nation’s natural heritage for all Americans – including those who don’t hunt and fish – and in supporting ethical practices that preserve and honor nature in all its diversity.
We can’t honor that tradition, or live up to our legal and ethical obligations, unless we act to ensure that predator and prey alike can thrive on our refuges.
Woody Guthrie penned “This Land is Your Land” during the Dust Bowl days of the Depression, at a time when it was far from certain that the continent’s wildlife and habitat would long survive. Like the men and women who came together to strengthen and expand the Refuge System and other public lands in these critical years, he understood intimately the value of public land.
In fact, “This Land is Your Land” includes a little-known additional verse that emphasizes this point:
There was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
While this verse is usually left out of the version we sing today, it speaks to the choice facing us. Will we again choose to manage our lands and wildlife for every citizen, or for the benefit of the influential few?
We’ve made our decision to protect public lands in Alaska and across the nation, and I urge you to support it and similar efforts at the federal and state level.
I’d like to think Woody would be proud.