Alaska News

Alaska loses lawsuit that challenged federal government’s ability to regulate hunting

A federal judge has ruled against the state of Alaska in a lawsuit that challenged the authority of the federal subsistence board to regulate hunting on public land within Alaska.

On Friday, judge Sharon Gleason denied a permanent injunction sought by the state against the federal subsistence board, which opened emergency hunts during the COVID-19 pandemic and temporarily closed nonsubsistence hunting for moose and caribou on federal public lands along the Richardson Highway near Glennallen.

Gleason dismissed some of the state’s complaints as moot. She declined to issue a temporary injunction against the board last year. The state filed its lawsuit in August 2020.

As partial justification for Friday’s order, she said the board is not bound by federal “sunshine” laws that require actions to be taken in public.

The case was one of several that have been filed on a variety of topics over the past year as the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy pushes against what it calls “federal overreach.”

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the Department of Law, said the ruling is “entirely contradictory” to federal law and that the state maintains that the board overstepped its authority. The state is considering an appeal, he said.

The Native American Rights Fund, which represented one of the defendants in the case, said it was delighted for its clients.

“This case is part of a long-term effort on the part of the State of Alaska to attack federal subsistence rights in Alaska,” the group said.

In the case of an emergency hunt near the Southeast Alaska village of Kake, the board delegated its authority to Kake’s local Native tribe, allowing the tribe to pick which hunters would participate in an emergency hunt, and to decide how the resulting meat would be distributed. The distribution was open to all local residents, not just tribal members.

The state argued that those actions were made improperly and violated the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act as well as the Sunshine Act and Administrative Procedures Act. It sued the federal government, and the Kake tribe intervened as a defendant on the side of the subsistence board.

First Alaskans Institute and Sealaska Inc., the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, filed arguments in support of the federal government and the Kake tribe.

Attorneys for Sealaska did not return a call seeking comment on Monday, but in legal filings argued that the state’s grievance against Kake’s management of the hunt could be seen as an attack on traditional Native management practices and that “disrupting long-established Native sharing traditions is an effective way of undermining Native culture.”

In its own legal filings, the state opposed Sealaska’s assertions and called them irrelevant to the case.

Gleason concluded that the decision to close hunts along the Richardson Highway was not arbitrary or capricious and that the state’s arguments about the Kake lawsuit are moot because the board’s delegation of powers has expired and is not likely to be renewed.

Subsistence hunting in Alaska is dually managed by the state and federal government because of a conflict between the state constitution and federal law.

Until 1989, state law allowed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to prioritize rural subsistence when deciding how to distribute hunting permits and tags. That year, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the preference was unconstitutional.

The federal Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, passed by Congress in 1980, paralleled the rural subsistence preference in place in Alaska law, but when the state law was ruled unconstitutional, the federal law remained unchanged.

After the Alaska Legislature failed to pass a constitutional amendment addressing the problem, the federal government assumed supervision of subsistence hunting on federal land in Alaska in order to give rural residents a preference.

Sponsored