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Federal subsistence review moving slower than expected

Kyle Hopkins

After announcing plans for a rapid review of the way the feds manage subsistence hunting and fishing -- with changes expected as early as this week -- the Interior Department is still looking for answers.

"The more we talked to people, the bigger the challenge grew," said Kim Elton, Department of Interior's director of Alaska affairs. "The expectation that the process could be done more quickly than it has gone was overly optimistic."

After weeks of visiting villages, regional hubs and cities, Interior Department officials met with regional subsistence advisers Thursday to gather more suggestions for how the feds should rewrite management in Alaska. The heads of advisory councils from across the state gathered in an Anchorage hotel, many calling for more grass-roots, local decision-making and less bureaucracy.

Regulating subsistence is one of the thorniest jobs in Alaska politics. It's complicated because both the state and federal government set separate subsistence rules for their own land. It's controversial because of a decades-old disagreement over whether rural residents deserve first crack at hunting and fishing rights.

The Federal Subsistence Board sets subsistence regulations for U.S.-owned land, which encompasses more than 60 percent of Alaska. It's advised by 10 regional councils that propose hunting and fishing rules and regulations.

Council leaders talked about a slew of potential changes to subsistence oversight at a December meeting and again Thursday. Among the ideas:

• Overhauling membership of the federal board -- possibly by adding someone from each region. Alaska Native leaders have said the board is now made up of federal agency heads rather than subsistence users.

• Bringing meetings closer to subsistence hunters and fishermen: Sometimes holding full board meetings in hub communities, rather than Anchorage, and advisory meetings in villages rather than hubs.

• Pushing for the feds to conduct predator control -- such as killing bears -- to boost game population on federal land.

Predator control decisions, to date, have fallen to federal land managers rather than the subsistence board, said Pat Pourchot, special assistant for Alaska affairs to Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar.

Bertrand Adams Sr., chairman of the Southeast advisory group, lamented the overlapping system of state and federal subsistence oversight.

"This is confusing to the subsistence users out on the field because I've seen people not go out and hunt moose because they don't know which law they're going to be under," he said.

Adams and other members said advisory groups also seemed to be losing their influence with the board. Some suggested tribal governments play a larger role in management. Others said turnover is a problem: As soon as federal managers begin to understand the nuances of subsistence in Alaska, they get transferred or promoted away.

Not all the advisers agreed with Salazar's declaration in October that current federal subsistence oversight is broken.

"If anybody is content, that means somebody else is discontented. I think what we've done is we've found a pretty good balance," said Ralph Lohse, chairman for the Southcentral council.

Bristol Bay Borough Mayor Dan O'Hara has represented his region on the advisory council since its creation, he said. The feds are faster at opening emergency subsistence hunts than the state, he said, so maybe they ought to be managing subsistence on Bristol Bay Native Corp. land.

That would allow for a rural subsistence preference on the land, but this can't happen without an act of Congress.

O'Hara also supports moving subsistence meetings away from the city.

"Let the federal board go to Dillingham or King Salmon or Naknek. Over to Bethel. You know, sitting here in their big towering palaces is pretty comfortable," he said. "But come on out there and have steam bath with us. Get stuck for two days in the weather."

Subsistence was a major theme at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October, when delegates called for sweeping changes and Interior officials pledged to quickly review and possibly overhaul federal oversight.

"We're still struggling with the issues, so we have no recommendations yet," Elton told the regional advisers Thursday.

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