The Senate voted Tuesday to abolish a rule restricting specific hunting practices on national wildlife refuges in Alaska - including trapping, baiting and aerial shooting - on the grounds that state officials should be able to set the terms for wildlife conservation on public land within their own borders.
The 52-to-47 vote, which was almost entirely along party lines, represented the latest instance of Republicans using a powerful legislative tool - the Congressional Review Act - to eliminate regulations that Barack Obama's administration finalized before he left office in January. Independent Sen. Angus King, Maine, joined Republicans in backing the measure, and the measure only needs President Donald Trump's signature to become law.
With Trump's support, congressional Republicans are working systematically to undo several environmental, labor and financial safeguards the previous administration put in place toward the end of Obama's term. Under the 1996 law, any rule wiped off the books cannot be reinstated in a "substantially similar form."
While a disproportionate number of the regulations that have come under fire address energy and the environment, the larger debate has focused on whether the federal government has the right to establish sweeping rules Americans must live by or whether power should be devolved to the states.
During a sometimes-emotional debate Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats sparred over how best to define sportsmanship as well as state sovereignty.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted that the issue of managing wildlife "is something in Alaska that we take very, very seriously." Recalling how she watched her grandparents and parents lobby for Alaska to become a state, she added, "It was all about fish, it was all about salmon. That's one of the reasons we fought for statehood."
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who spoke just before Murkowski, said the idea of allowing the killing mother bears and cubs as well as denning wolves and pups, would be putting "the federal stamp of approval on methods of take that the public views as unethical."
"I don't think that's standing up for hunters," he said. "I fear that it is endangering something that is critical to our culture and a way of life."
Heinrich added that he had recently taken his 13-year-old son Carter on his first elk hunt, where "he soon learned that the hard work comes after you pull the trigger. As his son painstakingly stripped the meat of the elk they had shot, the senator said, "Anything less would be unethical, and disrespectful to that magnificent wild animal."
The National Rifle Association backed overturning the rule, as did several Alaska-based groups. Environmental and animal welfare groups, by contrast, lobbied against the measure.
For years the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had negotiated on an annual basis how to establish hunting and fishing regulations for national wildlife refuges in the state, which encompass tens of millions of acres. But in 2013 the Alaska Board of Game, which is made up of political appointees, rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed rules and instructed the state fish and game agency to write the regulations on their own.
"It was the state of Alaska that broke with this tradition," former Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe said in an interview, noting that under federal law the agency is supposed to manage "for wildlife first" on its refuges. "We did everything we could to try to resolve the controversy, but the basic issue is what's your basic philosophy with regard to the management of predators. And these are national wildlife refuges."
In a statement after Tuesday's vote, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said that in his state, "many hunt for survival, both personal and cultural. 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 Ashe and other defenders of the rule said some of the changes envisioned by state officials, such as allowing people to fly into a place where grizzlies or caribou had gathered and begin hunting that same day, could disrupt the natural predator-prey balance in the wild.
"If they believe the Fish and Wildlife Service has overstepped its authority, there's a way to deal with that. Then take the Fish and Wildlife Service to court, Alaska does that very well," Ashe said. "But the reason they're not pursuing that route is because they know they'll lose."