Alaska Natives protest state lawsuit on subsistence hunting
Indian Country Today
Caribou and moose hunting season opened this month in Alaska, but only locals will be hunting at a popular destination for urban Alaska hunters.
The federal lands being closed are part of the traditional homelands of the Ahtna Athabascan in South-central Interior Alaska. The region includes moose and migratory routes of the Nelchina caribou herd, which numbers in the tens of thousands. The state argues there are enough moose, and more than enough caribou, to let the hunt go on as it has in the past.
So the state is suing over the closure of this swath of land to non-local hunters for the 2020-22 hunting seasons. That prompted six Alaska Native organizations to ask for a halt to “state oppression of Indigenous ways of life.”
On July 16, the Federal Subsistence Board announced sections A and B of game unit 13 would be closed except to rural residents the board has determined have customary and traditional use of moose and caribou.
Under both federal and state law, subsistence is defined as the “customary and traditional” uses of wild resources for various uses including food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, transportation, handicrafts, sharing, barter, and customary trade. The board is made up of representatives from federal land management agencies.
The Native organizations are protesting the state’s opposition to the federal closure.
The Organized Village of Kake, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Bristol Bay Native Association, Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Native Peoples Action, First Alaskans Institute, and Sealaska Corporation, released a joint statement protesting the state’s lawsuit.
“Without fail – despite the fact that ‘subsistence’ represents the smallest percentage (0.9%) of the overall ‘take’ of said ‘resources’ (quotes indicate western management terms that are not resonant with Native stewardship) – our access to our ways of life continues to be unjustly over-regulated and excessively enforced,” the organizations said.
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A local resident had requested the closure due to:
- Public safety concerns for federally qualified subsistence users
- Difficulty in successfully harvesting moose and caribou from federal public lands due to excessive competition from the large numbers of non-local hunters pursuing wildlife within the region
- Displacement of moose and caribou from their customary and traditional migration corridors
- Difficulty in passing on traditional hunting knowledge and customary and traditional hunting practices to children due to safety concerns
The Ahtna region stands out among the 12 Alaska-based regional corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 for the level of cooperation between the for-profit Ahtna Corporation and federally recognized tribes. In fact, seven of the eight tribes there merged with Ahtna, which has brought its political and financial clout to the table in fighting for subsistence rights.
Tribes and advocacy groups said by embarking on the lawsuit, the state “once again threatens the health and wellbeing of Alaska Natives who harvest for their families and communities as a cultural, spiritual, nutritional, and physical practice as they have for thousands of years on their homelands.”
Ahtna leaders have engaged in lawsuits, and provided written and spoken comments in numerous forums on the problems associated with the number and behavior of visitors who access, and trespass, Ahtna lands.
Michele Anderson, Ahtna Athabascan and president of the corporation, testified before Congress in 2014 requesting co-management authority over hunting and fishing on Ahtna lands.
She said the state of Alaska lacks the resources needed “to effectively administer a growing program whose users flood our traditional lands. Recently, some of our families have felt forced to not hunt on lands that were the traditional hunting areas of their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors.”
Public safety and excessive competition from non-local hunters are serious concerns, she said. Others have expressed that wanton waste of meat and random killings of non-game wildlife are a problem.
“As you can imagine, it’s concerning to be out in the woods with so many others who are unfamiliar with our lands and packing loaded firearms. Increased hunter pressure is also forcing animals further back on the land requiring larger all-terrain vehicles that can get to areas that are inaccessible to others hunting by foot or nearer to the road system,” Anderson said.
“Our tribal members and other local residents don’t have the expensive off road vehicles that urban hunters bring in. For the first time ever, many long-term hunters are reporting no success with the hunting season," she said.
Due to the many concerns, Anderson said, “Many residents of communities in our region who are not tribal members have expressed their growing discomfort and dissatisfaction with the circus that has become the hunting seasons on our traditional lands.”
The Ahtna Corporation land department has said, “approximately 10,000 fisherman, 10,000 hunters and over 500,000 tourists visit the Ahtna Region annually,” from Anchorage, Fairbanks and beyond. The visitors arrive via Alaska’s three main highways. The state, on average, annually issues 11,800 hunting permits for Game Unit 13.
In various forums, Ahtna attorneys and leaders have described myriad problems brought to the region by visitors, who they say:
- Leave human waste and trash on Ahtna lands
- Practice target shooting and leave broken glass
- Leave campfires burning unattended
- Cut firewood
- Create unauthorized trails and roads, damaging brush and tundra. (Damaged tundra takes decades to regenerate; some is permanently damaged.)
There have also been reports of intoxication, burglary, and domestic and other violence.
The closure is necessary, the board stated, for "reasons of public safety and continuation of subsistence uses.” It said sections A and B of game management unit 13 are the areas “where most overcrowding, disruption of hunts, and serious safety concerns have occurred.”
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Journalist Craig Medred recently said the state’s largest hunting and fishing organization, Alaska Outdoor Council, is protesting the board’s action.
“Rod Arno, the Council’s executive director, said it is time for the state and the Alaska Congressional delegation to weigh in to protect state authority to manage fish and wildlife as other states do,” Medred wrote on July 23. “[Arno] noted that some hunting seasons are only two weeks away and most hunters have been blindsided by the federal action.”
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and Office of the Governor Rural Policy Advisor John Moller denounced the board’s decision in an op-ed published on Aug. 20.
They said the closure “unnecessarily restricts hunting opportunity for many Alaskans who traditionally use this area to harvest moose and caribou to feed their families. It also comes at a time when... [moose and caribou] populations are good and healthy and there are no conservation concerns,” wrote Lang and Moller.
Last year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game extended the hunting season for the Nelchina Caribou Herd, which roams game unit 13, due to concerns that there were too many caribou, which “can over-graze a herd’s range leading to malnutrition or starvation.”
Land and Moller said the subsistence board over-reached its authorities.
The board’s decision was made under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which governs subsistence uses on federal lands.
Lang and Moller said nothing in that law “allows the federal government to close federal lands to reduce hunter conflict, and the facts do not support a decision to close hunting for reasons of public safety.”
The state believes the closure represents an “unnecessary and unjustified bureaucratic intrusion into state management that is providing for the subsistence needs of both local and non-local Alaskans.”
Lang and Moller said protection of subsistence is a state priority. “We understand the importance of harvesting wild fish and game to feed our families...In taking this court action [suing the board] we are simply ensuring that all Alaskans have an opportunity to feed their families when the resource can support it and to follow through on our constitutional decree that all Alaskan’s [sic] are equal and are afforded equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law.”
Karen Linnell, executive director of Tsin’ean of the Ahtna Intertribal Intertribal Resource Commission, said its board of directors is planning to meet soon to discuss and prepare a statement concerning the lawsuit.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.
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