Most Alaska moose and caribou hunters headed for the Nelchina Basin next month best start honing their map reading skills, invest in a good GPS or maybe both given new federal hunting rules.
The Department of the Interior this week announced it is closing more than 1.2-million-acres of public land in the area to everyone but local subsistence hunters.
“The (Federal Subsistence) Board approved a closure in (Game Management) Units 13A and 13B only for the 2020-2022 regulatory cycle due to its necessity for reasons of public safety and continuation of subsistence uses,” a federal communique said. “The Board limited the closure to Units 13A and 13B because this is the area where most overcrowding, disruption of hunts, and serious safety concerns have occurred.”
There is no shortage of caribou, but local hunters – who number in the hundreds – have complained about competition from thousands of hunters from Alaska’s two major urban areas.
Most of those who hunt the nearly 5.4-million-acres of wilderness roughly bounded by the Glenn Highway in the south, the Alaska Range mountains in the north, the Cooper River in the east, and the Susitna and Tyone rivers in the east come from the Anchorage or Fairbanks metropolitan statistical areas home to about five out of every seven Alaskans.
Almost 7,000 of them applied for state subsistence permits to hunt the area this year. The hunt was once limited to several hundred drawing permits that attracted primarily trophy hunters.
Later, as the Nelchina caribou herd increased in size, it was annually opened to a couple thousand Alaskans who competed on a points basis to see who got to hunt the state’s most accessible caribou herd.
The points scheme scored people on income, personal or family hunting experience in the area, place of residence and more, and it was contentious.
As a result, the Alaska Board of Game several years ago changed the regulations to allow all Alaska residents to obtain subsistence caribou permits if they agreed to limit their caribou and moose hunting to GMU 13.
Board members thought they’d found a solution to a long-running dispute. They underestimated how many people would forego hunting elsewhere in order to get a permit.
Subsistence is the Alaska term for hunting for food, and the new regulations set strict rules for GMU 13 hunters. Hunters who applied for and received permits, along with members of their household, were prohibited from hunting for caribou or moose elsewhere in Alaska.
Prior to Oct. 1, they were also required to pack out the meat of a caribou with the forequarters, hindquarters, and ribs still attached to the bone and then report the kill within three days.
Packing out meat attached to the bone just adds to the difficulty of hauling a carcass out of the field unless a hunter has access to an all-terrain vehicle or a boat on some of the area’s rivers and creeks.
A good size bull caribou will provide about 100 pounds of boneless meat. Bone-in requirements almost double the weight for anyone packing out the load.
Local hunters have complained that the influx of hunters from Alaska’s two major population centers has pushed caribou away from the Denali, Richardson and Glenn highways – the only major roads in the vast area – making it harder for them to kill a carbiou within easy packing distance of their car or truck.
The Federal Subsistece Board was established by the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 which created more than 104 million acres of new national parks and widlife refuges in the 49th state along with establishing a rural priority for the subsistence harvest of fish and wildlife “when it is necessary to restrict taking in order to assure the continued viability of a fish or wildlife population or the continuation of subsistence uses of such population.”
The Board is dominated and controlled by rural Alaskans. ANILCA has never before been used to shut the majority of Alaskans out of hunting areas simply because subsistence users didn’t like the competition.
It has been used to limit kills when there weren’t enough fish or wildlife available to allow participation by everyone wanting to join in the harvest. The new rule turn parts of GMUs 13A and 13B into something akin to private hunting reserves.
To qualify to hunt the areas under federal rules, you must establish a “primary, permanent home for the previous 12 months within Alaska and whenever absent from this primary, permanent home, (have) the intention of returning to it. Factors demonstrating the location of a person’s primary, permanent home may include, but are not limited to: the address listed on an Alaska license to drive, hunt, fish, or engage in an activity regulated by a government entity; affidavit of person or persons who know the individual; voter registration; location of residences owned, rented or leased; location of stored household goods; residence of spouse, minor children or dependents; tax documents; or whether the person claims residence in another location for any purpose.”
Resident versus residence
How much time one must spend in that place to maintain it as a “permanent home” is a subject that has been much debated in the state and occasionally litigated. Some Alaskans engaged in small fishing businesses have argued that though they spend most of their time “Outside,” as Alaskans call the lower 48, they are mainly on the road promoting their products while there and the home to which they return during the fishing season is their permanent residence.
The Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest hunting and fishing organization, is protesting the federal action.
Rod Arno, the Council’s executive director, said it is time for the state and the Alaska Congressional delegation to weigh in to protect state authority to manage fish and wildlife as other states do.
He noted that some hunting seasons are only two weeks away and most hunters have been blindsided by the federal action.
Less than two years ago, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke reaffirmed the primary role of the states in the management of fish and wildlife within their boundaries, but various entities from environmental organizations to commercial fishermen have regularly tried to pull in federal managers if they thought their interests would be better served by federal management.
The United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby, sued to force the federal government to intervene in salmon management in the federal waters of the Inlet. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a federal entity with little experience managing salmon, is now trying to figure out how to manage there.
Should that happen, some involved with the litigation have suggested that it could force the state to open the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, personal-use dipnet fisheries – now limited to Alaskans only – to all fishermen and women under the terms of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The issues are fraught with politics. The Kenai dipnet fishery operates in a non-subsistence zone the state Board of Fisheries created at the insistence of commercial fishermen worried that a court-ordered subsistence fishery then in operation could result in a subsistence priority.
As is now being demonstrated in the Nelchina Basin, the subsistence priority is an excellent tool for one interest group to leverage resources – or in this case preferred hunting conditions – from other interest groups.
UCIDA was worried dipnetters with a subsistence priority would use it to up their limited catch of sockeye salmon.