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Fed fight on subsistence

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Subsistence salmon drying/National Park Service photo

Alaska’s regulatory subsistence caldron is bubbling again as the federal government tries to rid 49th state wildlife refuges of bear and wolf hunting practices distasteful to some people.

Americans used to hunting and fishing being just hunting and fishing are sure to be confused by how things work in Alaska where some hunting and fishing is “subsistence” under either state or federal regulations.

Subsistence hunters and fishermen take priority over those who hunt and fish first for cultural reasons and secondly for food. And if that sounds complicated in theory, it only gets more so in practice.

Enter federal efforts to stop highly efficient predator killing techniques — primarily baiting and snaring grizzly bears and killing wolves and coyotes at dens — on 16 refuges that cover an area the size of New Mexico.

Predator control is a major issue in Alaska where subsistence residents live in part off the land.  Subsistence hunters consider bears and wolves unwelcome competitors for tasty moose and caribou when prey populations are low. And given that predator control has been shown to boost low prey numbers, Alaskans almost invariably start lobbying for the authority to kill more bears and wolves when prey numbers drop.

Often these demands come from rural areas. And given that subsistence is a holy grail there, propsed federal regulatory changes aimed primarily at restricting wolf and bear kills were carefully couched as “non-subsistence regulations.”

But in a letter to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called that out as a charade, writing that “despite cleverly titling the rule ‘non-subsistence’, it is clear to Alaskans that this proposed role will impact subsistence activities.

“Non-rural Alaskans are currently eligible to participate in subsistence activities under state regulations. An issue of particular concern to many Alaskans is the changes the proposed rule would make to the subsistence status quo. For example, if a young person moves to Anchorage to go to college and start their career, if this rule is finalized I understand they would no longer be able to go back and help their grandparents with subsistence activities on refuge lands, not even to help pull in a fishing net.”

Federal regulations now limit the subsistence priority to rural residents only. The state grants every Alaskan a priority, but then limits it to specific people on the basis of historic resource use and caloric need in areas where competition for the resource becomes so great that conservative seasons and bag limits must be imposed. Few subsistence fisheries are so limited.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association noted that although the newly proposed federal regulations are aimed at hunting, they are not limited to hunting. And according to association director Ricky Gease that is the least of the problems.

“One specific problem in the proposed rule is the addition of criteria without clear definition,” he wrote the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Criteria such as the conservation of natural diversity, biological integrity, biological diversity, and environmental health are proposed to be added,” but none of the terms are defined.

Gease wondered how federal land managers might decided to regulate beaver trapping under the proposed standards.

“…Is the trapping of beaver now good or bad under the lens of the new criteria?” Gease asked. “Beaver are a keystone species, capable of wholesale changes to the water dynamics of entire watersheds. Does some limited trapping of beaver impact the biological diversity or integrity within refuge boundaries? As some species benefit from beavers and some species do not, how is a regulatory body now supposed to objectively evaluate the harvestable surplus of beaver as it pertains conceptually to the conservation of natural diversity? Without clear definition, who arbitrates disagreement on these proposed criteria between the fish and wildlife regulatory bodies and the agency? The omission is very troublesome – open-ended criteria without definition or intended use is not supportable.”

Both Gease and Murkowski point out that state hunting and fishing regulations are now hammered out by regulatory bodies that engage in exhaustive hearings involving state resource managers and stakeholders. In setting seasons and bag limits for beaver, for instance, the Alaska Board of Game listens to state biologists charged with conserving wildlife and fish, beaver trappers wanting maximum beaver numbers to provide maximum long-term profits, fishermen wanting beaver numbers reduced to provide more fish habitat, environmentalists wanting “ecosystem management,” and others.

The result is invariably some sort of compromise.

Murkowski made it clear she sees the proposed federal rule as little more than an attempt to undermine this system in favor of rule-making by all powerful federal bureaucrats.

“Congress gave federal agencies primary authority to manage wildlife only in those instances where there is specific statutory delegation (from Congress),” she wrote, going on to cite all the federal laws setting the framework and calling for “a robust and genuine consultation process between the state and federal agencies.”

The consultation process is not really the issue, however. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the competing management agencies, are pretty good at consulting. The problem comes in the deciding.

The state wants to decide, and the feds want to decide. They’ve ended up in court several times fighting over the decision-making authority, and they’re back in court again. The latest case involves the National Park Service, not the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the issue is much the same.

The state said it was OK to use a hovercraft as a boat to hunt moose along a shallow, state-owned river in the wild and empty Interior. The feds said it wasn’t OK because the river ran through a national preserve managed by the Park Service. An Alaskan hunter ended up in the middle and went to court.

Some $775,000 later, 75-year-0ld moose hunter John Sturgeon, who might be destined to die a pauper thanks to the American court system, convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that he should be allowed to hunt under state regulations. Sort of.

While overturning a lower court ruling that accepted the park’s authority to banish Sturgeon’s hovercraft, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court for more costly hearings and arguments on the technical aspects of the case. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker patted Sturgeon on the back for protecting the state’s rights and offered to sign on as a Sturgeon campaign supporter if that would be any help to the moose hunter in raising the tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands, to continue to fight not City Hall but the White House.

Sturgeon was at last report weighing what to do next.

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service is stepping in to try to extend even more authority over Alaska lands to a government 4,000 miles away at the opposite side of the North American continent in Washington, D.C.

“The Service should instead work cooperatively with the state of Alaska to address any concerns it may have in a manner that respect the state’s primacy to manage fish and wildlife in Alaska,” Murkowski wrote.

Fair as that might sound, national environmental organizations have again and again underlined the fact that the resources in question are many times limited solely to federal lands — not state lands — and state fish and wildlife management policies tend to favor producing so-called “maximum yields” of resources to feed people and fuel multi-million dollar commercial fisheries killing more than 100 million salmon per year.

Federal lands, they argue, warrant more attention to those hard to define issues of natural diversity, biological integrity, biological diversity, and environmental health that leave Gease scratching his head.

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