The Federal Subsistence Board, or FSB, will soon consider an ill-advised request to close Northwest Alaska to non-federally qualified moose and caribou hunters. This means Alaskans from outside the region could be locked out of vast swaths of hunting territory. As the governor recently said, even his wife Rose would be unable to hunt the land she grew up on.
The FSB’s willingness to preempt state management and act outside of its scope of authority is nothing new. Last year, a similar action affected a popular hunting area near Glennallen. Hunters who were not federally qualified were simply banned. This meant someone who grew up and traditionally hunted around Glennallen, but had been displaced to Anchorage for health reasons, could not hunt the land they’d spent a lifetime hunting.
Worse, the proposed closure of moose and caribou hunting access in Northwest Alaska is based on a faulty premise. Supporters of this overreach claim that a small number of non-local hunters are having a significant impact on the migration of caribou and disrupting traditional hunting of these herds. This is flatly false.
The hunters being targeted by this potential closure harvest only 2% to 3% of the caribou taken each year, and caribou populations in the region are healthy. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd population is about 244,000 animals, which is above our population management goal. The amount considered necessary for subsistence is 8,000 to 12,000 animals, with harvest levels falling within this objective. In short, the population is healthy and providing for the subsistence needs of all Alaskans under state management.
Population levels are extremely important because Section 8 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, makes it clear that the FSB cannot close federal lands for just any reason. Specifically, hunting, fishing and trapping cannot be limited to federally qualified users unless there is a conservation concern or the continuation of subsistence is in danger. In this instance, much like the closure around Glennallen last year, the case for either of these reasons does not exist.
State management authorities have worked hard to come to amicable compromises between local residents and the small group of non-locals who hunt in Northwest Alaska. Over the past 30 years, the Alaska Board of Game has established Controlled Use Areas in the region that restrict the use of aircraft for hunting. Opportunities to hunt without the interference of aircraft already exist, and if additional areas are desired, state regulatory processes are available. A perfect alternative to get to the heart of their concerns is to work with the already-established Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group to address these issues. They can then propose and advocate for solutions to the Alaska Board of Game.
The consequences of this proposed closure will be felt far and wide. If federal lands are closed to non-federally qualified users, then the non-local Alaskans who wish to hunt this area will only be able to utilize state lands or thread the needle by hunting on navigable waters below the ordinary highwater mark where the state has jurisdiction. This will affect their subsistence opportunities.
The economic ripples will be felt locally across many sectors of society. The Alaskans and non-residents who travel to Northwest Alaska to hunt may be a small group, but they spend significant money on travel, gear, guiding services, and provisions — money that benefits local small businesses.
The state of Alaska is a sovereign entity with a legal interest in the management, conservation and regulation of all fish and wildlife within its borders. My number one goal, as mandated by Alaska’s constitution, is to deliver to the people of Alaska the maximum use and benefit of fish and game resources while ensuring a sustained yield for future generations. Providing for subsistence users is important and the state strives to meet its statutory mandate to provide a reasonable opportunity for subsistence use first. However, in this instance we find no evidence that the requested closure is warranted, nor does the Federal Subsistence Board have the authority to approve the closure since it does not qualify under the provisions of ANILCA.
Alaska strongly urges the FSB to follow the law and reject this proposal. To accept it would be blatantly illegal and an unjustifiable impact on the hunting rights of Alaskans. My department has a constitutional obligation to protect these rights, and, if necessary, will take action to protect Alaskans from harmful federal overreach.
Doug Vincent-Lang is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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