A Wasilla big-game hunter has filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Board of Game that could cut to the heart of what the authors of the state Constitution meant when they decreed that common property resources be managed “for the maximum benefit of the people.”
Hunter Robert Cassell’s specific complaint is with the nearly 40 percent of Kodiak brown bear permits reserved for non-resident hunters.
“Taking these permits and harvesting opportunities away from Alaskans and guaranteeing them to nonresidents is contrary to the Alaska Constitution,” says the suit filed Wednesday in the Anchorage Superior Court.
On its face, the suit appears simple, but it’s not. By law, non-residents hunting brown/grizzly bears in Alaska can’t just obtain a permit and go hunting.
“A nonresident who hunts brown/grizzly bear, Dall sheep, or mountain goat must be personally accompanied by an Alaska-licensed guide or by an Alaska resident 19 years of age or older who is within the ‘second degree of kindred,'” a state law dictates.
It defines “second degree of kindred” as “a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, spouse, grandparent, grandchild, brother- or sister-in-law, son- or daughter-in-law, father- or mother-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepsister, stepbrother, stepson, or stepdaughter.”
Most non-residents who journey to Kodiak to hunt the island’s massive bears lack access to such relatives. As a result, they hire guides.
A 2014 study prepared by the McDowell Group for the Alaska Professional Hunters Association concluded that Alaska guided hunting, nearly all of which is done by non-residents, is a $78 million per year business.
The study did not break out the value of the brown/grizzly bear hunting business, but noted that “brown/grizzly bear tags represented about 35 percent of all guided hunter tags purchased and 51 percent of all guided hunter tag revenue.”
The report listed 24 guides residents on Kodiak Island. Those guides depend almost entirely on non-resident hunters to support businesses the Kodiak Advisory Committee to the Boards of Fish and Game claims are worth $4.16 million per year to the Kodiak economy.
Though that might not sound like much in the financial capitals of the U.S., it is a significant amount of revenue on a 3,600-square-mile island in the Gulf of Alaska home to but 13,000 people.
The advisory committee argues the Kodiak economy needs the hunting industry. In January, it basically outlined the state’s case against Casssell. The action came in opposition to a proposal Cassell submitted to the Game Board calling for the state to change the existing permit system to ensure 90 percent of Kodiak bear permits go to Alaska residents.
The advisory committee was against the idea.
”Changing the current 66/34 allocation will have a major economic impact on small businesses throughout Kodiak and state of Alaska and most likely eradicate the long-standing guiding tradition on Kodiak,” the committee argued before bullet-pointing the local importance of the guided hunts:
- 185 non-resident hunts @ $22,500.00 per hunt equals an additional $4.16 million dollars infused into Alaska’s economy.
- Additional non-resident expenditures not accounted for include transportation, accommodations, food and drink, equipment, gifts and miscellaneous services.
- Other tourism-related expenditures incidental to hunting also exist.
- Non-resident expenditures are exponentially higher than that of a self-guided resident hunt. Guided hunts have higher per hunt costs such as employees, transportation, fuel, food, equipment, permitting and advertising.
The committee also cited biological concerns, observing that “resident hunters have a higher percentage of sow harvest. Non-resident guided hunters have a higher percentage of adult boar harvest at 73 percent…. An assessment from the Department (of Fish and Game) estimates an increase in female harvest would likely result in a decrease in the number of drawing permits available overall to the resident hunters.”
But the Constitutional crux of the committee’s argument was this:
“The Kodiak brown bear is a ‘non-meat animal. Thus it is not managed to maximize as a
food source. Therefore, priority management is for economic and intrinsic value. ‘For the maximum benefit of the people’ should thus involve a high percentage of nonresident guided hunters which clearly maximizes the economic value of the Kodiak bear.”
What the state’s Founding Fathers meant by “maximum benefit” has never been clearly defined, but most state resources have been treated as if the term referred to “maximum economic benefit.”
No Alaskans are allowed to tap in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System to get their share of the state’s oil, or take a wheelbarrow and pick ax into the Fort Knox Mine to collect some gold, or start logging in the Tanana Valley State Forest.
Fish and wildlife have, however, sometimes been treated differently even though most Alaskans don’t hunt or fish and really only benefit from a sound state economy.
The state subsistence law made local food-consumption the priority use for fish and wildlife in urban areas of the state with “urban” loosely defined so as to include areas like the Kenai Peninsula to prevent subsistence users from forcing aside commercial fishermen.
Commercial Chinook salmon fishermen were, however, banned from the Kuskokwim River of Western Alaska and the region’s most valuable resource – those Chinook – were fully allocated to the subsistence fishery.
Resident Hunters of Alaska, a group to which Cassell belongs, believes state resident hunters should get somewhat similar treatment. Attorneys for Cassell, a Matanuska-Sustina Valley dentist, argue this is in keeping with a literal interpretation of the state Constitution.
“Article 8, section 3 of the Alaska Constitution provides: ‘Whenever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife and waters are reserved to the people for common use.’ In other words, the Alaska Constitution requires the state of Alaska to reserve wildlife, including Kodiak brown bear, to the residents of Alaska for common use,” they write.
The Board of Game didn’t see it that way. It bowed to the economic argument in March and voted down the Cassell proposal 5 to 1.
The Board’s rationale for “continuing to insist on an unconstitutional allocation of resources appears to be that it has authority to allocate resources however it chooses, without regard to Constitutional limits; and that modifying the Kodiak brown bear permit allocation would have an adverse economic effect on the guiding industry, despite the fact that economic allocation is not within the Board’s statutory authority.”
But it also doesn’t appear to outside the Board’s statutory authority, which is vaguely defined. By statute, the Board is set up for the “purposes of the conservation and development of the game resources of the state.”
What “development” means can be viewed in many ways.