The Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) will soon consider a misguided request to close northwest Alaska to federally unqualified moose and caribou hunters. This means that Alaskans outside the region could be excluded from large swathes of hunting grounds. As the governor said recently, even his wife Rose would be unable to hunt the land she grew up on.
The FSB’s desire to anticipate the management of the State and to act outside its field of authority is not new. Last year, a similar action impacted a popular hunting area near Glennallen. Hunters who were not federally qualified were simply banned. This meant that someone who had grown up and traditionally hunted around Glennallen, but who had been moved to Anchorage for health reasons, could not hunt the land on which he had spent his life hunting.
Worse yet, the proposed closure of access to moose and caribou hunting in Northwest Alaska is based on a flawed premise. Proponents of this overbreadth claim that a small number of non-local hunters have a significant impact on caribou migration and disrupt the traditional hunting of these herds. This is outright false.
The hunters targeted by this potential closure only harvest 2-3% of the caribou captured each year, and the region’s caribou populations are healthy. The Western Arctic Caribou (WACH) herd population is approximately 244,000 animals, which is above our population management target. The amount considered necessary for subsistence is 8,000 to 12,000 animals, with harvest levels within this target. In short, the population is healthy and meeting the livelihood needs of all state-run Alaskans.
Population levels are extremely important because Section 8 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) makes it clear that the FSB cannot close federal lands for any reason. Specifically, hunting, fishing and trapping cannot be restricted to federally qualified users, unless there is a conservation issue or the maintenance of livelihood is in danger. In this case, just like the closure around Glennallen last year, the case for either of these reasons does not exist.
State management authorities have worked hard to reach amicable compromises between local residents and the small group of non-locals who hunt in Northwest Alaska. For the past 30 years, the Alaska Board of Game has established Controlled Use Zones (CUA) in the region that restrict the use of aircraft for hunting. Opportunities to hunt without aircraft interference already exist, and if additional areas are desired, state regulatory processes are available. A perfect alternative to getting to the heart of their concerns is to work with the Western Arctic Caribou Working Group already established to address these issues. They can then propose and defend solutions with the Alaska Board of Game.
The consequences of this proposed closure will be felt everywhere. If federal lands are closed to unqualified users at the federal level, non-local Alaskans who wish to hunt this area will only be able to use state lands or thread the needle when hunting on navigable waters below the leash. ordinary high water where the state has jurisdiction. This will have an impact on their livelihood possibilities.
The economic repercussions will be felt locally in many sectors of society. The Alaskans and non-residents who travel to Northwest Alaska to hunt may be a small group, but they spend a lot of money on travel, equipment, guiding services, and supplies, money that benefits local small businesses.
The State of Alaska is a sovereign entity with a legal interest in the management, conservation, and regulation of all fish and wildlife within its borders. My number one goal, as mandated by Alaska’s constitution, is to provide the people of Alaska with the maximum use and benefit of fish and game resources while ensuring a sustained yield for future generations. Providing subsistence users is important, and the state strives to fulfill its statutory mandate of providing a reasonable opportunity for subsistence use first. However, in this case, we find no evidence that the requested closure is justified, and the FSB does not have the authority to approve the closure as it does not meet the provisions of ANILCA.
Alaska strongly urges the FSB to follow the law and reject this proposal. Accepting it would be clearly illegal and would have an unjustifiable impact on Alaskan hunting rights. My department has a constitutional obligation to protect these rights and, if necessary, will take action to protect Alaskans from the damaging excesses of the federal government.
Doug Vincent-Lang is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.