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Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

On June 9, the Trump administration issued a rule tossing out Obama-era bans on certain hunting practices in Alaska. 

Animal rights and environmental groups say the controversial practices were banned as cruel, unsportsmanlike, and scientifically unjustified. When it takes effect in July, the new rule will free hunters in national preserves to:

- Take any black bear with artificial light at den sites

- Harvest black and brown bears over bait

- Take wolves and coyotes (and cubs) during the denning season

- Take swimming caribou

- Take caribou from motorboats under power

- Use dogs to hunt black bears.

- Carry out predator reduction efforts

At its 2014 convention, the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives voted to oppose the rule. The resolution described it as “overreaching, vague, and indiscriminate.” Delegates said the rules would criminalize Alaska Native traditional resource management practices, and reduce access for subsistence.

Peter Christian, spokesperson for the National Park Service Alaska regional office said, “In the intervening years between 2015 and now, we got a new administration and a new Department of the Interior. And the Secretary of the Interior, in an attempt to increase access for hunting and fishing and to align park service rules a little more closely with state rules, we made the decision to repeal the ban on those hunting practices.”

Darrell Vent Sr., Athabascan, is a hunter from the village of Huslia on the Koyukuk River in Interior Alaska. He said Athabascan cultural practices for hunting black bear have been and continue to be passed on from one generation to the next. Some of those practices were banned in the 2015 rules.

He testified to the Alaska board of game in 2018 in support of lifting some of the rules.

“It’s hard to catch them [black bear]. It's not, it's not an easy job. You got to spend a lot of time out there and … there’s just a very few people that can do it.” He said a hunter might look at 60 dens to harvest one bear.

Among Athabascans, bears are known as physically and spiritually powerful animals deserving of great respect. 

Showing disrespect by laughing at or even talking about a bear could cause it to not offer itself up to the hunter. The bad luck could affect a hunter’s future hunts too. 

Vent said when a bear is harvested, a bear “party” is held. Special songs, and dances are performed and parts of the bear are cooked and eaten. Showing respect, he said, is important because “we want to make sure that we have that food forever.”

Other ways to show respect, he said, are, “You make sure that everything's clean. You put that [unused remains] back in a proper place. You don't just throw it away. You treat that animal with respect. That's how you get your respect and your luck in hunting these animals cause it's not easy hunting this animal.”

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He said the Athabascan avoid hunting cubs. “The bear, the time that they have their cubs are usually in January, February. So those are the months that we don't hunt those. …

“We don't do this hunting [then] because it's taboo for us to be catching cubs with bears in the den because it has relations to our family. Our family would have bad luck if we did that, which could be stillborn or a kid not waking up from sleep or anything like that. So we don’t. That's a taboo.”

When asked if the Athabascan hunt grizzly bears, Vent said, “Oh no, that's too dangerous. They’re, brown [bears] are a different type of bear altogether.”

Karen Linnell, Athabascan and Tlingit, is executive director for the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission. She said the use of artificial lights when hunting black bear in their dens is “a traditional practice [of the Gwitchin and Koyukon] for thousands of years.” She said the 2015 rule that banned the use of lights put hunters in danger. Moreover, she said, the rule-making didn’t follow proper procedures.

The rollback of the hunting restrictions is a win for the state of Alaska in a long-standing dispute between the federal and state governments over wildlife management on federal lands.

Congress set the two at odds with enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, or ANILCA. The lands act put 157 million acres of Alaska land into federal ownership. That’s 61 percent of Alaska’s land mass, the largest percentage and amount of any state.

Food gathered from nature is an important element in Alaska’s outdoor culture, and particularly important in rural areas where the cost of food is often half again or more  than in urban communities due to the high cost of transportation.

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Christian said Congress recognized the unique nature of Alaska in the lands act. “The founders of ANILCA were looking at a chance to do things differently.” He said the lands act was designed to allow for continuance of an Alaska lifestyle.

“Rather than instituting these national park units and pushing everybody out and saying, you know, ‘things are different now.’ We by and large kept the promises made to Alaskan people, which was, parks and preserve lands would be places where — Alaska is unique — a traditional lifestyle would continue,” Christian said.

The lands act authorized sport and subsistence hunting, fishing and trapping in national preserves in Alaska under applicable state and federal law and regulation.

The issue is that the core purpose of some agencies is not aligned with the state of Alaska’s approach to game management. 

The missions of agencies such as the National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service are to conserve, protect, and enhance diverse wildlife and their habitat for this and future generations. These agencies lean toward a minimalist, or hands-off, management approach that promotes diversity of wildlife.

The state of Alaska’s mandate, as expressed in its state constitution, is to use, develop, and maintain wildlife to sustain yields for human use. In 1994, the state instituted “intensive management” of predators to increase the number of prey animals available for human harvesting. The idea is that if predator numbers are reduced, prey animal populations will rise.

As one example of intensive management practices, if individual hunters do not achieve the target reduction of wolf numbers through trapping, aerial land-and-shoot and other hunting, Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees have hunted wolves by helicopter. Over the years, through the use of such techniques, hundreds of black bear and wolves and a few dozen brown bear have been killed.

Christian said according to existing data, the new rule will have an impact on individual animals or individual packs, but is not expected to impair entire ecosystems. The new rule goes into effect July 9, 2020.

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Updated to add information about the Alaska Federation of Natives' opposition to the initial rule.

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

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