Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

In August, the state of Alaska sued to stop federal agencies from allowing emergency hunts. The U.S. District Court for Alaska last week sided with the federal agencies and dismissed the state’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

The state has been fighting federal land managers over fish and game management off and on for decades.

This latest bout stems from COVID-related food shortages.

Last summer, store shelves in the Tlingit village of Kake, in southeast Alaska, were getting bare. COVID-19 outbreaks had slowed production at Washington state meat processors, Kake’s main source of non-game meat. The state had mandated travel restrictions. And state budget cuts had all but shut down the low-cost ferry system used to ship food to island communities.

The Organized Village of Kake was one of three tribes that requested emergency hunts. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game denied their request. The village wrote to the Federal Subsistence Board, which manages subsistence on federal lands in Alaska.

The letter said vendors were having a difficult time meeting the needs of Kake’s stores.

“With that said, with the abundance of local Traditional foods, [the Organized Village of Kake] is requesting an emergency use permit to hunt for moose and deer when the store doesn't acquire the desired meats they once received pre-COVID-19,” the letter stated.

Kake tribal President Joel Jackson, Tlingit and Haida, also testified to the board. He said Kake tribal citizens, especially elders, needed the best nutrition they could get to be in the best health to fight COVID if they came into contact with it.

Jackson said he told the board: “Not only that, but at this point our people need their spirits lifted. I know the concept of sharing with most non-Native people is ... they don't understand how we share our food with everybody. When we take something to them, to our elders especially, we give them this food, give them the deer, we give them moose, fish, whatever, they smile and say, ‘Thank you.’”

The board authorized the emergency hunt and delegated details to the local U.S. Forest Service ranger. The village ended up being approved to take two bull moose and five male deer.

The state said the board’s authorization of the hunt “impairs the state’s ability to manage its fish and wildlife” by allowing moose and deer to be taken out of season and in excess of established bag limits.

U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Gleason said it’s irrational to conclude that any change to the number of moose or deer harvested in a given season irreparably harms the state’s ability to manage hunting and wildlife.

The state said federal agencies had gone beyond their authority under the Alaska National Lands Conservation Act .

However, Gleason said an emergency hunt was reasonable given the tribe’s concerns about food shortages. And she said, it was in keeping with the lands act, which aims to ensure the physical well-being of rural residents of Alaska.

“The OVK is a federally recognized Indian Tribe with powers of self-governance and jurisdiction over its tribal citizens and subsistence resources are a ‘foundational piece of the cultural fabric of Kake,’” the court said.

The state has indicated it will appeal.

Meanwhile, Jackson said the village is using some of its COVID relief money to get a community walk-in refrigerator/freezer to safely store deer, fish and moose for the community.

Kake is a village of 550 people on Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska. About two thirds of the population is Tlingit Indian. Last summer the village received permission to hunt two moose and five deer to ensure the health of its elders and provide culturally nourishing food during the pandemic. (File photo: Creative Commons)

At the heart of state and federal wrangling over fish and game are differences between federal law and the state Constitution. Since statehood, the state had been in charge of fish and game on federal and state lands. Then Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which made rural subsistence harvests a priority. Alaskans voted against amending the state Constitution to bring it into compliance with the lands act. Federal agencies took over fish and game management on federal lands in 1990.

The Federal Subsistence Board is made up of representatives of federal land management agencies: US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, and US Forest Service, and two public members who are subsistence users.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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