Rural Alaska

Parts of Northwest Alaska will be closed to nonlocal caribou and moose hunters the next 2 summers

Western Arctic Caribou Herd

Caribou and moose hunting in parts of Northwest Alaska will be closed to nonlocal hunters in August and September of 2022 and 2023 to support local subsistence hunters and protect the declining population of the herds.

With caribou and moose populations shrinking and many hunters who live in the Northwest Arctic struggling to harvest animals over the past several years, the Federal Subsistence Board voted March 30 to close caribou and moose hunting on some federal lands in the region for two months this and next summer to non-federally qualified subsistence users — in other words, hunters who live outside the range of the herd.

“While many factors, such as weather, climate change and changes to the historical extent and timing of caribou migration may be contributing to lower harvests by federally qualified subsistence users, the board should act to help ensure that rural residents are able to meet their subsistence need, and to provide for a subsistence priority,” said Thomas Heinlein, acting Alaska director for the Bureau of Land Management, during the board meeting. “Therefore, non-federally qualified harvest should be eliminated in some areas in times of shortage.”

Local hunters and game managers have been discussing the closures for almost two years, said Thomas Baker, the chair of the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council. He said it took a lot of hard work and outreach from the communities to advocate for the decision that they hope will help them protect the herd and provide food for their families.

“In all of our communities in the region, people are very ecstatic, people are feeling that this is something that’s a long time coming,” Baker said. “Having this closure in place is a big victory in a lot of people’s eyes here in the region, just because it is an actual, tangible step toward being able to manage our herds that we live with and we live by.”

But for hunters living in other places in Alaska and elsewhere in the country, the news is concerning, said guide Brad Saalsaa, the owner of Alaska Wilderness Charters and Guiding, which offers caribou hunts out of Kotzebue.

“A lot of people are worried. It’s a major deal,” Saalsaa said. “It’s going to affect resident hunters in Alaska, not in the Kotzebue area, but throughout the state. Residents who live in other communities, they can no longer hunt up there on the federal lands.”

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[Previously: Shrinking Western Arctic Caribou Herd prompts discussion about future hunting restrictions]

Ongoing deliberation

The board’s decisions in favor of the closures came after more than a year of deliberation and a thorough analysis.

In February 2021, the board received a request from the Northwest Arctic subsistence council to close caribou and moose harvests to hunters from outside the area on federal public lands in Game Management Units 23 and 26A — which in total make up 71% of Unit 23 and 73% of Unit 26A. The request was for August and September, when the majority of the non-local harvest occurs. The board deferred the request to the next year, seeking additional information, and since then, it’s held three public hearings and received numerous written comments from hunters, tribal communities and game managers.

The majority of testimony during the past meetings came from hunters outside of Northwest Alaska. They testified against the closures, citing a lack of data about the harvest and herd behavior, as well as the economic impacts of closing the hunt for people from outside the area and the importance of keeping federal lands open to all citizens. Representatives from Alaska Department of Fish and Game also opposed the closures for these reasons.

Almost all testifiers from Northwest Alaska, as well as regional boards and tribal organizations, asked for closures to preserve the declining moose and caribou population, restore the caribou migration pattern and protect subsistence resources desperately needed during the pandemic. They argued that the nonlocal hunters’ activity — such as hunting along caribou migration routes and harvesting lead animals — divert the herd and harm their ability to provide food for their families.

The population of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd — one of the largest caribou herds in Alaska — has declined by 24% over the past two years, according to the 2021 census that Fish and Game presented in December. The Western Arctic Caribou Working Group members decided to change herd management status from “conservative declining” to “preservative declining” to reflect the shrinking population.

Caribou migration in recent years has also been delayed, according to the data from collared cows and testimony from Northwest Alaska residents. In fall 2020, only Noatak was able to harvest the animals, and in 2021, migration was also very late, resulting in the lack of fall harvest, uncertain winter hunts, empty freezers and stressed communities.

The moose population has also been shrinking in almost every census area since 2009.

The closure areas

To support the declining population of the herds, help local subsistence hunters and avoid a total closure of public lands in Units 23 and 26A for other hunters in the future, the board came up with a compromise: a modified motion to close caribou hunting only within parts of the units, targeting the areas along important caribou migration routes that are popular among non-federally qualified hunters.

For moose hunting, the board limited the closures to federal lands in Unit 23, where more hunters from outside of the area harvest the animals. The caribou hunt closures cover the Noatak National Preserve, including the Nigu River portion in Unit 26A, and the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, between the Noatak and Kobuk rivers.

Portions of lands in Unit 26A and Unit 23 will remain open to hunting. For example, in the parts of Unit 23 that aren’t affected by closures, Alaska residents are allowed to harvest five caribou a day — bulls at any time of year and cows during a seven-month-long season. Nonresident hunters could harvest one bull per year from August to the end of September. Hunters can harvest one moose per year in Unit 23, but nonresidents are allowed to do so only in September while residents have a seven-month-long window.

However, Saalsaa said that the small western portion of Unit 23 almost 100 miles from Kotzebue that is still open to all hunters is not accessible. Plus, the bulk of caribou are located to the east.

“The major areas that they closed is where the caribou migrate,” Saalsaa said. “There’s not a lot of options for residents to hunt caribou in the state of Alaska, and this was the largest herd in the state, and it was easy access for people to get from Anchorage, or whatever community, to Kotz. ... They did leave a little bit of area that is open, but not enough to really make a difference.”

According to Baker, the closures create “a protected area that makes it a little easier for the caribou to migrate through” and for “the local people to harvest these animals” along the rivers close to their communities.

“And that’s the big thing — that there’s a better chance for caribou to migrate south through these areas,” he said, “meaning that the animals are actually coming to the communities. The animals, they have a safer, better chance to make it undisturbed to where the local subsistence users are.”

Closing for 2 seasons

The recent caribou and moose hunt restrictions will be in effect for both 2022 and 2023 to assess the effectiveness of the closures, Heinlein said.

Saalsaa said he is concerned the closures might stay in place after two seasons and set a precedent for similar restrictions in other places in Alaska.

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“The big thing is the uncertainty of how long it’s going to be closed — they say for two years, but it seems like when they do a temporary closure, it never reopens,” he said. “And that’s a stepping stone for further closures — that’s one thing that has everybody concerned.”

Baker said that closures for two seasons increase the chances for local hunters to be able to harvest animals again and encourage them to continue advocating for their needs.

“People are happy for this action and are looking for ways to keep the ball rolling and continue to make it happen and communicate that we want to be involved,” Baker said. “We want to give everyone the opportunity to harvest animals in our area, but harvests need to be managed appropriately across both sides, for local and non-local.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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