Goodbye ‘bou?

Is the present decline of the Nelchina caribou herd a mere management setback or a sign of a 1970s-style crash to come?/Alaska Fish and Game chart

Lack of caribou cancels subsistence hunt

The big problem with Alaska’s so-called “subsistence” hunting law is today being clearly illustrated in the Nelchina Basin 100 miles northeast of the 49th state’s largest city where those who claim a need to kill big game to survive have learned there is a climate shift worse than global warming.

Thirteen years ago, after years of political infighting and litigation over who should be allowed to shoot Nelchina caribou of which there have never been anywhere near enough to fully meet hunter demand, the state Board of Game created a permit system that allowed any state resident the opportunity to hunt the herd, but only on the condition he or she obtain a permit stipulating no caribou or moose would be hunted elsewhere in the state.

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game report from the time says, the stipulation was to “determine how many ‘true subsistence hunters’ there were: that is, how many people hunted and used the herd consistent with the Board of Game’s customary and traditional findings (as to wildlife use).

“This was characterized as ‘walking the walk’ of a true subsistence hunter. In other words, the question was not ‘How many people want to hunt Nelchina caribou,’ the question asked in 1992 (when the state first began working out a priority for subsistence in the area), but ‘…how many people want to participate in this lifestyle (as) a subsistence use encompasses a whole lifestyle….'”

Now that it has come time to truly walk the walk because of a crash in the number of caribou in the Nelchina herd, however, the state has freed the more than 5,000 Nelchina permit holders of their pledge to forego hunts elsewhere. 

Thus they will be allowed to pile into areas where a lot of other hunters were already hunting, which is sure to cause some issues. And from the looks of things, this could last for some years.

How did we get here?

Well, the short answer, at least in terms of the Nelchina Basin at this moment in time, is that if there is anything worse than climate warming in the north, it is climate cooling, and the Nelchina herd has taken a big hit from the shift away from what appeared at one time to be the state’s “new normal” to the same old, same old of bitter cold and deep snow.

When you’re an animal that eats vegetation, and all the vegetation is buried deep beneath snow in winter, life gets very, very hard.

Climate normal

“Deep snow occurred again in the winter of 2022/23, as well as another late spring, late migration, and late calving
period,” as state wildlife biologist Todd Rinaldi explained the present situation. As a result, “87 percent of (radio) collared 2022 calves died prior to spring.

“The fall (2022) population estimate was 17,433 animals with a bull-to-cow ratio of 26 bulls per 100 cows, and a calf-to-cow ratio of 16 calves per 100 cows.”

So let’s do some math here. The numbers above would dictate that 74 percent of the herd was made up of cows. That translates into 12,900 female caribou. But fewer than one in five were still accompanied by calves that had survived until fall.

This works out to about 2,064 calves still alive going into winter. Of the few radio-collared calves in this cohort, 87 percent died over winter or on the way back to the summer range.

This reflects extremely high calf mortality within the herd, but just for the sack of argument let’s say that the stress of capture and collaring and that extra weight around the neck made the collared calves a little more prone to mortality than uncollared calves.

So figure maybe, overall, the mortality was only 80 percent. Or, in other words, 20 percent of all the calves survived to move into the adult population this year. Twenty percent of 2,064 is 413 new caribou added to a population that last year went from a summer estimate of 21,000 animals to a fall estimate of 17,433.

That’s an over-summer loss of 3,567 caribou with only 413 coming in to replace them. This is the kind of population dynamic that can quickly turn a big herd into a small herd.

It’s obvious now that the state probably should have closed the season last year. And it did restrict the summer and fall hunts to relatively small quotas of bulls only, which minimized overall losses given that one bull can breed a whole harem of cows.

Still, it’s inevitable that if the season is open a few ignorant hunters will mistake cows for bulls, since both sexes of caribou sport antlers. Caribou aren’t like whitetail deer with antlerless does and antlered bucks.

Only one cow was reported to be mistakenly shot last year, but these kinds of mistakes by hunters don’t always get reported.

The state, to its credit, did close the summer season as soon as a preseason quota of 140 bulls appeared in sight, did the same with the fall season less than two weeks after it began, and then canceled a number of planned winter hunts saying that a survey had found “adult cow and adult bull estimates are well below the fall objectives.”

The restrictions helped limit the 6,800 permitted, state subsistence hunters to a reported kill of only 515 caribou to feed themselves and their families.

How many caribou were killed in a parallel federal hunt has yet to be reported by federal officials,  but Rinaldi noted in a Fish and Game Department statement, that “federal subsistence hunt administrators did not restrict fall or winter season dates or bag limits and issued permits for harvest of either sex.”

Dereliction of duty

Issuing either-sex permits allowing hunters to shoot any old caribou they happen to see in a scenario like the one outlined above can only be described as irresponsible.

Federal wildlife managers, who have far more power in Alaska than they do in any other state, should have their fingers slapped or worse, but they won’t, because of one word: “subsistence.”

Subsistence – which in its true sense only worked in Alaska when people starved to death with some regularity to keep the human population in line with the available supply of wildlife, fish, and other wild resources – became a holy grail in the 49th state after the federal government in the late 1970s began deciding how many new national parks, wildlife refuges and forests to create from within the 220 million acres of land it still held in the north.

The feds had earlier granted the newly formed state of Alaska 105 million acres via the Alaska Statehood Act with the hope the 49th state could establish some sort of instate economy to lessen the Alaska Territory’s drain on the federal treasury.

Another 40 million acres, along with nearly $1 billion, went to 13 newly formed Alaska Native corporations a dozen years later to settle aboriginal claims to the ownership of the entirety of Alaska. 

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which sealed that deal, also included a stipulation in Section 17 (d) (2) that ordered the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw “up to, but  not to exceed, 80 million acres of unreserved public lands in the state of Alaska…which the Secretary deems are suitable for addition to or creation as units of the National Park, Forest, Wildlife Refuge, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems.”

D-2 set the stage for what was to be known Outside, as Alaskans refer to the lower 48, as the “Alaska Land Battle” but which was better known in-country simply as the D-2 battle as the fight over the future of public lands in the north raged on for half a decade.

From this political dust-up pitting the state leaders of the day against the U.S. Congress and then-President Jimmy Carter came the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, which grew the 80 million acres in specially protected conservation lands to more than 100 million acres and created a special “subsistence” privilege for undefined rural Alaska residents.

The noble intent of the subsistence provision was to provide some in Alaska the opportunity to live off the land. In so doing, the authors of the subsistence priority recognized that given the low wildlife productivity of the 49th state’s wild lands, the state’s Native population – most of whom were then living in impoverished (and still largely impoverished) rural areas – weren’t going to be able to subsist on the 40 million acres awarded Alaska Natives by the Claims Act.

Meanwhile, with the U.S. then more about integration than separation – busing to integrate black and white schools in Boston had only begun in 1974 –  the situation was further complicated by the desire to maintain good relations between Natives and the growing number of people of other races in rural Alaska, given that the land battle came in the wake of the “Earth Day “ movement of the 1970s which inspired some primarily young people in the lower 48 to flee to the north country with dreams of living off the land in the Alaska wilderness, where there isn’t much to eat but wildlife and fish.

For a dietary reference, see the diary of the famously starved-dead Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp of “Into the Wild” infamy, with its 430 words focused on his suffering and what he was killing to try to stay alive: “weakness; snowed in; porcupine day; misery; move bus; grey bird; ash bird; squirrel; gourmet duck, MOOSE!”

From out of this background emerged the subsistence section of ANILCA which declared that “the continuation of the opportunity for subsistence uses by rural residents of Alaska, including both Natives and non-Natives, on the public lands and by Alaska Natives on Native lands is essential to Native physical, economic, traditional, and cultural existence and to non-Native physical, economic, traditional, and social existence.”

And thus “in order to fulfill the policies and purposes of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and as a matter of equity, it is necessary for the Congress to invoke its constitutional authority over Native affairs and its constitutional authority under the property clause and the commerce clause to protect and provide the opportunity for continued subsistence uses on the public lands by Native and nonNative rural residents.”

Feds versus state

The state was to be granted the authority to continue to manage fish and wildlife everywhere in Alaska, except on National Park lands, as is the case in all states. But only if it went along with the subsistence provision of ANILCA.

The state subsequently wrote its own subsistence law that tried to walk a fine line between the Alaska Constitution and ANILCA’s further stipulation that “whenever it is necessary to restrict the taking of populations of fish and wildlife on (public) lands for subsistence uses in order to protect the continued viability of such populations, or to continue such uses, such priority shall be implemented through appropriate limitations based on the application of the following criteria:

  1. “customary and direct dependence upon the populations as the mainstay of livelihood;
  2. ‘”local residency; and
  3.  “the availability of alternative resources.”

The “whenever necessary”  clause was going to be a problem from the start because it is always “necessary to restrict” the killing of fish and wildlife or people will kill almost all of them as the nation learned well before the modern conservation movement took root in the early 1900s.

That movement grew steadily into the start of the 20th century, but not fast enough to save the passenger pigeon from extinction. The last of that species – “Martha” – died in 1914.

Just decades earlier, the National Museum of Natural History records, “the passenger pigeon had been the most abundant species of bird in North America.”

The passenger pigeon’s extinction did, however, help turn the tide for conservation, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which notes that in its wake “important laws were passed, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934, the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, and the Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950 (currently known as the Pittman-Robertson Act and Dingell-Johnson Act). Collectively, these acts laid the foundation for a funding mechanism to state wildlife management agencies…(at a time when) bison, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, were pushed to the edge of extinction.”

A peer-reviewed study of white-tailed deer has calculated there were fewer than 215,000 left in the country when conservation efforts were first started in the 1900s. 

There are today almost 25,000 times as many whitetails in the state of Texas alone, according to World Population Review, which puts the national total at 36 million. Still deer hunting remains tightly regulated in all of the states because if it wasn’t, the size of the whitetail population could go down to a little as fast as it went up to a lot.

This is due to the simple fact there are never enough wildlife resources to satisfy human hunting demand even when those resources are at their peak. This reality is what led to the idea of “sport” hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as hunters tried to preserve a cultural tradition in the face of a changing frontier.

Sport hunting, ironically, was never really about any sort of sport. It was solely about preserving hunting opportunities even if that meant restrictive rules that guaranteed many hunters would be unsuccessful at killing anything.

As the historian Daniel Justin Herman has written, “hunting had always been an important subsistence activity for pioneers, (but) American colonists had identified agriculture as the basis for civilization. Even in Thomas Jefferson’s era, most Americans
considered full-time hunters to be barbaric and backwards men who, like Indians, could lay no legitimate claim to land.

“According to the Enlightenment precepts of colonial and early national Americans, only men with plows – men who rejected hunting as a way of life – had the right to claim the continent. Yet somehow, Americans of Theodore Roosevelt’s era had come to invert such logic.

“To a large degree that inversion occurred precisely because Americans were becoming urban, industrial, and more ethnically mixed. Hunting offered a way to recapture an imagined past.”

The imagined past

Efforts to recapture an imagined past would take their wildest turn in ANILCA wherein Congress tried to cement into law the idea that masses of modern humanity could still live off the land in Alaska as aboriginal residents had once done.

And never mind that Alaska was estimated to have been capable of supporting fewer than 80,000 of them before white contact with almost 90 percent living in coastal areas where they could survive on marine resources. 

By the time of ANILCA, unfortunately, the rural population of Alaska had climbed to near 100,000 and was still growing while many Native Alaskans had moved to urban areas. A full and accurate enforcement of the federal subsistence rule to limit hunting and much fishing to rural residents only would have deprived them along with those one-time sport hunters of any hunting opportunity.

Thus to preserve hunting and fishing opportunities for all Alaska residents, the state’s first version of a subsistence law in 1978 made all Alaska residents eligible for a subsistence priority if they met the ANILCA standards of “customary and direct dependence upon the (fish and wildlife) populations as the mainstay of livelihood” and a lack of “availability of alternative resources,” but without the differentiation between urban and rural residents.

The federal government, however, refused to accept the state law as protective enough of the “rural” provision and threatened to take over fish and wildlife management in the 49th state if the law wasn’t amended to limit subsistence to rural residents.

Sport hunting had, by that time, become a dirty phrase in the state with sport hunters identified as people hunting solely for “fun” and regularly accused of “wasting” the meat of the animals they killed although there was plenty of waste to go around.

Moose, in particular, are massive animals that can sometimes yield up to 800 pounds of meat, which is one hell of a load to pack out of a wilderness area. As a result, there were a lot of people of all different sorts regularly doing a sloppy job of butchering their kills in part because in the 20th century no one was really as dependent on the meat as those in the 16th century.

Whatever the case, when the state amended its subsistence law in 1986 to comply with federal government demands, Alaska rid itself of resident sport hunters. All Alaskans then became subsistence hunters, but they were divided into Tier I hunters, with no subsistence priority, and Tier II hunters with a priority.

A permitting system was then set up that required Tier II applicants to submit to the state information on their place of residence, income, and “customary and direct dependence” on the resource.

The scoring system was weighted toward rural residents and hunters who could claim the longest hunting histories. The latter criteria for accumulating points was quickly scammed by those who realized “family history” could be used to document “customary and direct dependence” and thus if you married into a family who had been hunting, say Nelchina caribou, for decades, you could claim all of that history to up your score toward an exclusive Tier II permit.

But rural residency was still a big part of the point system when in 1989, the late Sam McDowell, an old-school conservationist, led a gang of old Alsaka hunters and fishermen into court to challenge the state law linking Tier II permits to rural residence.

In what would come to be called the “McDowell decision,” they argued the law violated the common use, equal rights and due process clauses in the Alaska Constitution.

“Appellants are Alaska residents who have engaged in subsistence hunting and fishing in the past and wish to continue to do so,” the Supreme Court opinions notes. “Under the 1986 act, they are disqualified as subsistence users because they reside in areas classified as non-rural by the joint Boards of Fisheries and Game.”

The state’s high court eventually decided that “the requirement contained in the 1986 subsistence statute, that one must reside in a rural area in order to participate in subsistence hunting and fishing, violates sections 3, 15, and 17 of article VIII of the Alaska Constitution.”

But, the court added that, “the conclusion we have reached does not mean that everyone can engage in subsistence hunting or fishing. We do not imply that the constitution bars all methods of exclusion where exclusion is required for species protection reasons. We hold only that the residency criterion used in the 1986 act which conclusively excludes all urban residents from subsistence hunting and fishing regardless of their individual characteristics is unconstitutional.

“We are not called upon in this case to rule on what selection criteria might be constitutional.”

The ruling put an end to the agreement between the state and federal government that had allowed Alaska, like other states, to manage fish and wildlife within its boundaries.

The feds took over management of wildlife on the federal lands and in some Alaska subsistence fisheries, but largely allowed the state to continue managing commercial fisheries in state waters even though some of those fisheries – such as those on the Yukon River – intercept salmon bound for subsistence fisheries upstream.

Most importantly, though, the state Supreme Court ruling left largely intact the state subsistence law and the Board of Game began working up new standards to differentiate the state’s Tier I subsistence hunters from the state’s privileged Tier II hunters.

The present Nelchina caribou hunt, which required hunters forgo hunting opportunities elsewhere in the state in exchange for Tier II privileges, was one of the differentiation schemes, which grew only more complicated when the state decided there was a need for “community hunts” to maintain old Native traditions of 0ne or a few hunters supply a whole village with meat if possible.

This led to more scamming of the system with all kinds of people, like “The Bike Collective” based in the state’s largest city, obtaining permits. The community permits to subsist are now as dead as the individual permits.

Maybe next year?

So the big question going forward focuses on how long it will take the Nelchina herd to rebound to the desired population of 35,000 to 40,000 animals so all these hunters who claimed to need Nelchina caribou to subsist can go back to hunting the animals.

The simple answer to that question is “years.” Exactly how many is harder to determine.

After the big Nelchina population crash of the early 1970s – which saw a herd that had numbered nearly 70,000 animals fall to fewer than 10,000, apparently because of range deteriorationit took almost 20 years for the population to bounce back. 

Everything from now on going forward, as in the past, depends on what happens with reproduction and what wildlife biologists call “recruitment,” which involves calves not only being born but surviving to become adults capable of producing more calves.

So again, let’s do some math:

Fish and Game has yet to report the summer count on the numbers of caribou in the Nelchina herd or the herd composition. But let’s figure that it still contains at least 12,000 cows that could have given birth this year.

In the best-case scenario, you could expect nearly 50 of each 100 to produce a calf and for maybe 70 percent of those calves to survive. So you get 6000 calves and 4,200 survive to join the herd as yearlings next year.

That still leaves the herd a long way from the management goal of a minimum 35,000 given today’s numbers. But the recruitment is quickly moving in the right direction.

With this sort of reproduction for a few years, you could be back close to the minimum management goal in say 2027, and depending on bull-to-cow ratios some limited hunting might be allowed in the years between.

Maybe a drawing permit hunt for a small number of bull permits as was the case back in the bad old days when resident Alaska “sport” hunters entered a permit lottery?

But, of course, there are no Alaska sport hunters anymore and the state subsistence law would appear to dictate that if there is to be a hunt, the hunters should be whittled down to the neediest among us.

It will be interesting to see what the Board of Game does next. Are there any homeless living in Glennallen or Copper Center? They would surely be first in line for any subsistence permits, but enough of that.

Let’s consider the worst-case scenario.

Rinaldi at the end of June warned that “conditions on the calving grounds in spring of 2023 were very similar to the spring of 2022, with poor productivity and poor neonate survival. Calf-to-cow ratios for summer and fall composition counts are expected to be similar to those observed in 2022.”

So let’s go with that and calculate those 12,000 cows will be accompanied by only 1,920 calves when they leave for the wintering grounds and that again about 80 percent of the calves will die over winter or on the way back to the summer range.

In that case, fewer than 400 yearling caribou will be added to the herd next year, which is unlikely to provide enough to replace the adult caribou dying over the course of the preceding winter.

In reality, of course, the recruitment in the years ahead is most likely to be somewhere between the worst and the best. If you go back and look at the chart of numbers for herd growth after the 1970s crash, you’ll see a pretty steady climb in numbers that allowed the heard to rebuild to 25,000 over the course of the decade of the 1980s, but it then took almost another decade to get to 35,000.

If you’re a Nelchina caribou hunter, you might want to start hoping for the return of a little of that global warming of the late 2010s to boost reproduction and recruitment, and if you’re an Alaskan in general, you should probably give thanks for the fact that few in the state today are truly dependent on the “subsistence” harvest of big game to survive anymore because there would be widespread suffering if they were.




5 replies »

  1. Good reminder Craig that Sam McDowell and Dale Bonderant were serious conservationists. Believers in equity among users of resources. The Supreme Court decided for them on the issue of rural priority. (A priority for some subsistence users when fish or wildlife populations cannot support all subsistence, guided and unguided hunting, etc .) Mcdowell decision followed the Kenai Peninsula unanimous Madison decision by the supreme court. The state was appealing ADFG loss to Kachemak Bay Subsistence Group and Gene Madison appealed his lower court loss. The supreme court combined the 2 cases..
    The regs to implement the state subsistence statute were advertised and commenting on through the F&G local advisory committees and the joint boards of fisheries and game. Two basic choices; one for local priority, one for rural priority were on the table. Secty James Watt, of the US Department was represented by his chief of staff, Bill Horn.Horn told the boards that he had a $900,000 check signed by Watt to pay for implementation of a subsistence program. Horn said that he was directed to deliver the payment whether they enacted a rural priority or a local priority. After all we recognize that all rural places are also local, he said. I supported ‘local’ on the same grounds as Sam and Dale; equity. Local meant that there would be a priority for Anchorage and Fairbanks residents, in their districts, in times of shortage. If that had been the choice the basis for the McDowell case would be eliminated.
    There seems to be no push to amend the regulation to make preferences local. If it were done the 91 F&G Local F&G Advisory committees would have a potent role restored along with Regional Councils made up of LAC reps. Elected in our home towns. ADF&G management would be restored. A good thing. Then maybe we could retrieve marine mammal management. We have pissed away the vital responsibility to manage our sustainable resources by fighting among ourselves. Larry Smith

  2. The feds should not be managing Alaska animals. Especially if they are not carefully working with the state to guarantee correct harvest of a resource for its growth. Feds = irresponsible in nelchina apparently . Besides the feds involvement is dubious legally.

    The tier system needs scrapped its messy and inaccurately thought of as subsistence.

    Lottery’s make sense. They are fair regarding equal opportunity.

    Local harvest priorities make sense. Especially for the health of our planet. If you want a higher likelihood of winning a lottery and hunting an animal then move there.
    Just like if you want a specific job then move there .

    Each person should have a 5-50 mile preference radius reduced or grown based on the vicinity of other communities for whatever animal is available, based on animal quantity. A 1-3 day walking distance is reasonable.
    Every thing should be lottery based on resource availability.
    If you live closer to a resource you should be in the lottery for locals. Single homes outside a standard community could be considered their own community and get a tag if resources were available. ( rare occurrence)
    As you live further from a resource you would be entered into a different pool lottery system.
    Your home would be considered your primary residence.

    Anyone who wanted classified as subsistence hunter would have to hunt in moccasins or barefoot, use a primitive hand made bow, spear or rock that has minimal mechanical advantage.
    Not used motorized vehicles after stepping out their homes door . Not even bicycles- minimum mechanical advantage. Then maybe they would get a priority in the lottery system.

    Inflation adjusted 10c opinion.

    • Alaska is a big place, if you are talking about the wolves and bears that were killed to help ease predation on the Mulchanta Caribou Herd then you are talking about an entirely different area than where the Nelchina Caribou Herd is…like a long, long way away. Perhaps the state should look into killing wolves and bears around the Nelchina Herd, they might even be able to get hunters to help out in that area, some of the tier II folks might be interested in helping to preserve hundreds if not thousands of caribou every year simply by removing a few wolves and bears.

  3. Duh. A subsistence lifestyle is a bunch of work. Thanks to the US government nobody in Alaska has to depend on that to stay alive.
    3 Bear food, firearms, ammunition store has it all, and it’s in Wasilla and Healy only hours away from residents in GMU 13.

    Until harvestable surplus of caribou in the Nelchina herd increases it’s worth the trouble of keeping the tradition alive, Go hunt in a new spot, It makes sense when you think about sustainability to keep the hunting for food tradition alive. Hopefully good science.will show us the way.

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