State game managers reduced bag limits for subsistence and nonresident hunters this week to preserve the declining Western Arctic Caribou Herd.
The Alaska Board of Game concluded its meeting in Kotzebue on Jan. 29, making decisions on several management proposals.
Subsistence hunters living in Northwest Alaska and parts of the North Slope are now only allowed to hunt up to 15 animals a year, only one of which can be a cow. This is a considerable change from five caribou a day, and it goes into effect on state-managed lands on July 1.
“A reduction in cow harvest is the single most important thing we can do to help the Western Arctic Caribou Herd,” said Alex Hansen, Kotzebue-based wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He applauded the efforts of residents and hunters to take the lead in the conservation effort.
The decision was met with mixed responses.
“It’s a good thing,” said Vern Cleveland Sr. of Noorvik. “It’s a good thing for our caribou coming through low, and we don’t know where we’re losing caribou. ... And that’s good for our people that rely on caribou.”
Other residents did not welcome the change.
“I can appreciate that they want to conserve the caribou,” said Delores Ann Barr from Kiana, “but they don’t understand that this is our livelihood that we rely on to sustain ourselves.”
Changes are coming as well for nonresident hunters, who had previously been able to hunt one bull per year. Starting in 2025, they will need to draw one of 300 permits to hunt in the Kotzebue area.
“We want stability to harvest and the ability to access land,” said Brad Saalsaa, founder of Alaska Wilderness Charters & Guiding. “By limiting the access through a draw registration, I believe that that will happen.”
Caribou bag limit
Among the most contentious proposals the state game managers discussed was to reduce the bag limit for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which has been declining for years. Fish and Game estimated in 2023 that the size of the herd was 152,000 animals, 7% smaller than in 2022.
The original proposal was to reduce the bag limit for subsistence hunters from five caribou a day to four caribou per year, only one of which could be a cow.
That proposal generated significant pushback from residents across the region who rely on caribou for food. During multiple meetings and in their written comments, many of them said four animals a year would not be enough to feed families in villages where food and fuel prices are skyrocketing.
As a result, the original proposal was amended to reduce the limit instead to 15 animals a year, including one cow.
Tanya Ballot of Selawik said the new limit is reasonable, “if that’s what it takes to basically save the herd.”
The original proposal was meant for the whole range of the herd: Units 21D Remainder, 22, 23, 24B Remainder, 24C, 24D and 26A.
However, residents on the North Slope argued that the proposed limit wouldn’t be fair to them, since many of them also harvest caribou from other herds that are not declining.
After several discussions, the Board of Game decided to also adjust the range of regulations in the proposal. On the North Slope, the regulations apply to the eastern region, including Wainwright and Point Lay, which primarily harvest from the Western Arctic herd. The western part of the North Slope — including Anaktuvuk Pass and Utqiagvik, which harvest mostly from other herds — will keep their previous limits of five animals a day.
“They struck a really good balance,” Hansen said, “that allowed the residents of the North Slope to share in the burden of conservation necessary for the (Western Arctic herd) without restricting hunters who primarily rely on adjacent herds.”
The community of Anaktuvuk Pass was one that game managers paid special attention to, he said.
“Those folks, they don’t have much else besides caribou,” Hansen said. “It was too big of a burden for them.”
Catherine Edwards from Anaktuvuk Pass said she is proud of her community for speaking up during game management meetings to advocate for their need for subsistence.
“We do survive on the caribou year-round. It’s our chicken and beef,” she said. “I understand that there are rules and regulations for any state, but to put a rule for us is ridiculous. The Nunamiut people never take more than what is needed and we make sure not to waste. Our community works together and makes sure that the people are fed.”
The new limit is accepted for an indefinite amount of time, though there’s a potential to loosen restrictions when and if the caribou population rebounds, Hansen said.
Draw for nonresident hunters
Another proposal that attracted a lot of attention from the public was to close nonresident caribou hunting in the range of the Western Arctic herd. That proposal failed.
Local hunters have been arguing for years that their subsistence rights should be prioritized and protected, and limiting non-local hunters should come first.
“I don’t agree that they continue to allow nonresident hunters to come and take for sport,” Barr said.
Hansen previously said that hunt closures for nonresidents wouldn’t be enough to bring meaningful change because they take significantly fewer animals and are only allowed to hunt bulls.
However, in the Kotzebue area — Unit 23 — the board amended the proposal to create a draw of up to 300 permits for nonresidents, effective in 2025.
While the number of nonresident hunters visiting Northwest Alaska varies, Hansen said that the region can see up to 500 or 600 hunters a year. The permit draw was meant to restrict access for nonresident hunters.
“Right out of the gate that would represent a reduction in visitation by hunters,” Hansen said. “That was a move in the right direction to, you know, give the state a little bit more ability to ratchet back nonresidents’ visitation and harvest.”
If the Western Arctic Caribou Herd continues to decline, Hansen said game managers can further shrink the number of permits for nonresidents or eliminate nonresident hunting in the future.
Saalsaa — the guide company founder —said that after the draw, he expects fewer than 300 hunters to actually make it to Alaska for the hunt.
“That’s going to definitely take quite a few people out,” he said. “I bet 20% will not come.”
Saalsaa, who lives in Ketchikan and has been coming to Kotzebue to guide for 25 years, said that to support locals’ access to subsistence, his business encourages their clients to donate meat to the village of Kotzebue. He also pointed out that access for nonresident hunters has been restricted for years, even though they take a relatively small number of animals and hunt only males, not significant for the herd’s rebound.
Overall, he said he was happy about the board’s decisions, especially about their focus on protecting the cows.
“All user groups have to preserve the breeding population,” he said. “We all have to work together. We all have to have the same goal in mind: What can we do as an entire group to preserve the herd?”
A big part of Northwest Alaska land is managed federally. In spring, federal managers will make decisions on hunting regulations for those areas.