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Endangered dreams

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo

The fate of a bucket-list trip of a lifetime for a 70-year-old Californian who long ago served his country while stationed at Fort Richardson outside of Anchorage now rests in the hands of the state of Alaska.

State officials are the last hope for one-time Alaskan Ted Case, who last fall scheduled the caribou hunt of which he has dreamed for more than 40 years. The federal government killed the dream a month ago. Why?

Because a few thousand hunters in Northwest Alaska don’t like a few hundred hunters  from Outside the region visiting  an area that sprawls across about 50,000 square miles of road-less wilderness. In this area near the size of Pennsylvania yet home to no more than 10,000 year-round residents, federal wildlife biologists estimate visiting hunters kill about 800 caribou a year year, or about 6 percent of an annual harvest of some 13,600 animals slaughtered in Alaska’s Game Management Unit 23.

Such a summary of circumstance, however, grossly over-simplifies the situation in rural Alaska where wildlife management has become about so much more than just animal populations and scientifically justifiable harvest levels. The non-wildlife issues now regularly trump the wildlife issues.

Race and class in America, poverty, states rights, tribal authority, jealousy, resentment, plain old-fashioned power politics, the federal “subsistence” law unique to Alaska, and more enter the picture in a land where what seems on the surface simple lives beneath in a cobweb of social and emotional tangles hard for an Outsider to grasp given the area’s remoteness.

The Western Arctic caribou herd roams a landscape where few live and few will ever ever visit. The far Northwest corner of the 49th state is far from anywhere and costly to reach, let alone hunt. For a non-resident of Alaska flying north intent on bagging a caribou, the adventure and cost only begin at the busy Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage.

Once on the ground there, the meter starts running. Three-hundred-twenty-five dollars for a non-resident caribou tag, another $85 for a non-resident hunting license, $350 for a flight to Kotzebue, and this is cheap part.

Kotzebue, at the northern tip of the 42-mile long Baldwin Peninsula jutting into Kotzebue Sound, is only the start of the trip. The caribou are on the mainland to the east, north and south. To get to them requires a costly small-plane charter.

Alaska Wilderness Charters and Guiding, a business that provides drop-off services for non-guided hunter, offers a five-day hunting package for $3,150. Guided hunts cost about twice as much. If a visiting hunter can pull of a $5,000 hunt, not counting any airfares into and out of Anchorage (there are no direct flights to Kotzebue), he or she is doing good.

Because of cost, the non-local hunters trekking to Kotzebue in the late summer and early fall number only in the hundreds. Because of the cost, Case put off his caribou dream for most of a lifetime.

Enough caribou, too many people

But every year Case waited, the more complex became the issue of non-resident hunters in the Kotzebue area. Six years ago, writing for an in-house publication of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sue Steinacher described “A Crisis in the Making in Northwest Alaska; Caribou, Hunting Pressure and Conflicting Values.”

“Each fall the Kotzebue airport is awash in camo as hunters from across the state, the country, and overseas arrive in hopes of bagging a trophy moose, caribou, sheep or grizzly,” she wrote. “Broadly, the problem is about what happens when different perspectives on hunting collide and access to wilderness, wildlife, and hunting opportunity is insufficient to meet everyone’s needs.”

Kotezbue is a small town, population 3,300, with a big runway for jet aircraft and a tiny terminal. A hundred people, a small number even in the Anchorage airport, looks like a horde in Kotzebue. When they are nearly all hunters from outside the area, it looks like an invasion.

Non-local moose and particularly Dall sheep hunting in the Northwest has long been contentious. The Brooks Range mountains to the east  contain limited numbers of both big game animals.. But the Western Arctic caribou herd is the largest in the 49th state, something noted in the state’s “Unit 23 Hunter Orientation,” which it was hoped would help mediate issues arising between locals and non-locals.

“The caribou population is healthy and hunting regulations have been modified to protect other species such as moose and sheep, which now occur at low densities and cannot sustain liberal hunts,” the orientation notes. “Even so, local hunters and other residents have been concerned about high numbers of visiting hunters, the perception that they may be affecting hunting success in some areas, and the need for visiting hunters to respect traditional values and practices.

“Over the  years, the Alaska Board of Game and Alaska Department of Fish and Game listened to concerns from local subsistence hunters about the disruption of customary hunting practices by non-local hunters and associated aircraft activities….One result of the process was a Board-passed regulation which requires pilots transporting parts of big game to take a pilot orientation and quiz,  and carry a certificate with them while operating in Unit 23.

“At the Board’s request, ADF&G provides nonlocal hunters with orientation materials to help them hunt with minimal conflict in Unit 23. One of these is an article describing some of the conflicts and their history.”

The effort at mediation didn’t work in part because in Alaska – unlike in the rest of the country – the state isn’t the primary wildlife manager.

Federal oversight

Enter the Federal Subsistence Board, an entity established by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 to protect the subsistence needs of rural Alaskans. One of the stated goals of the federal legislation was to “provide the opportunity for rural residents engaged in a subsistence way of life to continue to do so.”

The federal law stipulated that when hunting and fishing regulations are established the “harvest on public lands of fish and wildlife for nonwasteful subsistence uses shall be accorded priority over the taking on such lands of fish and wildlife for other purposes.”

Subsistence was defined as “the customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of nonedible byproducts of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption, for barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption; and for customary trade.”

Alaskans have been arguing about the priority  and the meaning of all these things for a generation now even as most Alaskans, even those in rural areas, have moved ever farther from what constituted a “subsistence way of life” in 1980.

Just how complicated the situation has become  was evidenced by the testimony of some who appeared before the Federal Subsistence Board to argue against limiting the Northwest caribou hunt to Northwest residents.

Anchorage’s Paulette Schuerch, who was born and reared in the region, was among the witnesses opposed to the closure, noted the regional newspaper “The Arctic Sounder.”

“A lot of us have to leave home for jobs, so, it’s very sad to hear that the federal government is going to consider me a non-subsistence user, when I’ve been a subsistence user all of my life, just because of where I live,” she told the board. “I’m an enrolled tribal member at home. My family lives up there still. I do agree with trying, but I’m upset to hear that I’m a non-traditional subsistence user and I won’t be able to hunt at home.”

The board approved the closure anyway.

Plenty of caribou

Ironically, both state and federal wildlife biologists agree the issue is not about a lack of caribou. The Western Arctic herd has declined significantly from near a peak of 500,000 animals in 2003, when biologists worried about there being too many caribou for the range, but it now appears to have stabilized at a population above 300,000.

Calf survival is good, as is caribou cow survival, said Lem Butler, the state’s assistant director of Wildlife Conservation. Both indicate a healthy herd that should be easily able to support an annual harvest of less than 4.5 percent of the overall population. The Nelchina caribou herd, the state’s most accessible and most heavily hunted, has been managed for a harvest of around 6 percent since the 1970s and in that time has grown from about 8,100 animals to 35,000 to 40,000 animals these days.

The estimated 800 Western Arctic caribou annual killed by non-local hunters is so small, Butler admitted, that it falls within the margin of the error for the count on the massive herd.

As a result, he said, the state can’t go along with the federal decision and has asked the Federal Subsistence Board to reconsider its actions. The state owns 5 to 6 million acres of land in Northwest Alaska and plans to leave those lands open to non-local hunters.

If hunters from elsewhere show up to hunt state lands, Butler added, “this just escalates the tension. It will concentrate people. It just puts people on top of each other.

“We’ve got to find way ways to work cooperatively together,” he said. “This isn’t productive.”

Whether the feds will see things that way remains to be seen. Hunters like Case, who finds himself caught in the crossfire, can only hope.

An old dream

Case fondly remembers his Alaska years at Fort Rich, as the Army base abutting the state’s largest city  was once known to everyone. Fort Rich is gone now, folded into Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson along with what was the Elmendorf Air Base next door.

But Case, a former medic, will never forget.

“I skied cross-country for the army for the two years I was up there,” he said by phone form his home near Los Angeles. “It was very invigorating. It was probably the best training I ever had in my life. We did  10 1/2 miles in an hour.”

Case left Alaska in 1967. There were only 278,000 people  in all of the state then, about 22,000 less than today live in the municipality of Anchorage. Kotzebue was home to only about 1,600. The Northwest regional population was less than half of what it is today.

Still, Kotzebue was in some ways a boom town. A post-World War II population explosion had more than doubled the community’s size. It would keep growing. Case’s dream, however, would remain fixed in time.

He would dream about a wild  Alaska Arctic, and the fabled caribou herd there.  An elk and deer hunter since his youth in Colorado and New Mexico, he’d long yearned to hunt the north country’s most majestic deer, but the hunt never happened.

His only contact with Alaska big-game was as a packer performing the labor after the moose hunts of others. Packing moose meat, which is measured in the hundreds of pounds, is the perfect job for aerobically fit cross-country skiers.

“I never cared about harvesting a moose,” Case said, “but sure I helped pack some out.”

What he wanted was to go on that caribou hunt, to watch the migration of the last, big, free-ranging wildlife herds in North America, to experience a bit of what the continent must have been like when the bison still roamed the Great Plains.

It just never happened. He got out of the Army. He moved to California.

“I met this beautiful blonde,” Case said. “This guy in the apartment I was living asked, ‘Can you paint?'”

Case fibbed a little and said yes. Next thing he knew, he was a painting contractor. His painting company painted Anaheim Stadium. He married the blonde. They started a family, then grew a family business.

“I became a general contractor,” Case said. Case and Sons Construction in Anaheim now employs a staff of 16.

“I’ve been fairly successful,” he said.”It took a lot of hard work,  just keeping your nose to the grind stone and going good work.”

He made enough money that he and that blonde have been back to Alaska a time or two. They took a cruise up the Inside Passage. They went fishing out of Homer and on the Kenai Peninsula. But the caribou hunt?

“I just never had the funds,” Case said.

All of that changed after a couple of Case’s younger hunting buddies lost their parents last year.

“I’d always been like a dad to those guys,” Case said. “They asked me if there was anything I ever wanted to do that I’d never done. I said, ‘I always wanted to hunt caribou.'”

Everything happened fast after that. Airplane flights to Alaska were booked. An outfitter flying out of Kotebuze was contracted for early dropoff.

“It was going to be a party of six,” Case said. “We were going to fly to Kotzebue and take a small plane up north. It was really exciting. I’ve never been up on the northern plains.”

Case was counting the days to hunting season on his calendar and then, just like that, the hunt was out the window.

“I understand people taking too many animals,” he said. “I understand closing seasons when there aren’t enough. But this, after letting the permits go? Because there’s too much competition? It sounds crazy.

“But  people have ideas in their mind. I understand that. I can imagine. They just want a lot of people to stay out. I understand.”

One way or the other, though, he’s heading north. It doesn’t make much sense to stay home.

“We’ve already got our airplane tickets,” he said. “If I don’t get to hunt, I guess we’ll just go two or three days up in the area, (and) I’ve still got hope.

“Hope’s the best thing. We’re still going to come the last day of August. I’ve been planning this caribou trip for at least 45 years.”

Maybe the feds should just let the residents of the Northwest Arctic vote on this one. They’re good people. Given the particulars, the odds are they’d let Case hunt.

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5 replies »

  1. Good to see this coverage. The article gets at some of the complexity of the situation. But it would’ve good to see some attention to a few additional nuances. 1) the federal subsistence board barely passed this unit 23 closure. Several of the agencies on that board voted against it. 2) for NW AK residents the nonresident hunting is as much or more about effects on herd movements than it is about the numbers of caribou harvested. It’s perceived that nonresident hunters take too many of the lead caribou and disrupt herd movements away from local hunters. 3) the closure is for federal lands only. Aren’t there state lands in NW AK that are still open to non-resident caribou hunters?

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    • yes, there are state lands still open, and as mentioned in the story, concentrating hunting there might well make things worse. the state also has authority over private lands, and i guess if it wanted to play hardball it could declare itself in agreement with the feds that the herd is in trouble and close state lands and all private lands to caribou hunting. that would certainly cause an uproar. if NW AK residents have caribou herd movements figured out they’re way ahead of anyone else. the history of caribou herds is that they move all over hell and gone, abruptly abandoning some areas for long times and recolonizing others. i can remember when there were even some state wildlife biologists thinking hunting pressure along the Denali Highway had stopped herds from crossing there, and then all of a sudden there were caribou all over the highway. go figure.

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  2. Interesting post, Craig. But I don’t think that just because a person has some particular species on his “bucket list” of trophies justifies the argument. The whole argument – from “make a wish” to “bucket list” of people pleading that “now my end is near, I really really want to kill something” – is disgusting and depressing. You’d think they’d develop some empathy for others who share our common mortality. Even for folks who want to “fill their freezer” my first thought is “how full do you need it to be? How much will be ultimately taken to the dump?” With 7 plus billion of us on the planet, we’ve simply got to take the pressure off the animals. Just leave them alone, or better yet, work to protect them and their habitats. Even native people like myself have to limit our reproduction, because we’re taking too much, too. Maxine

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    • Maxine: if this were a situation where the mortality was additive, i’d agree with you. but it’s not. it’s compensatory. in the sense of waste-not, i have no problem with this hunt. but i do have a question for you: are wolves and bears disgusting and depressing?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. More free proofreading: in the sentence “Case left Alaska in 1967, two years before Statehood.” the date should presumably be 1957. Thank you for your consideration.

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