PAXSON — "Didn't see no moose, didn't see no moose tracks. Didn't see no caribou, didn't see no caribou tracks," the city dude told me. He was a first-time hunter of Nelchina caribou.
A subsistence hunter with a Tier I caribou permit, this guy and his two buddies were hunting in Game Management Unit 13 along the Denali Highway this past week, and they hunted hard. The three hunters had no ATV, but they were willing and eager to walk. A new-to-them river boat, shiny rain gear and a new 1-ton diesel completed their ensemble.
I'm not seeing many caribou tracks either, but I'm seeing a ton of hunters. Without question, there are more "subsistence" hunters along the Denali Highway than ever. The sheer number of hunters in a game management unit with few roads is creating issues during the relatively short hunting season. Additionally, most truckloads of hunters are dragging a trailerload of four-wheelers behind.
One truck with several guys and three off-road vehicles lead to extremely overloaded trails. The Swede Lake trailhead that leads into the Alphabet Hills is a prime example. This past weekend, the last of moose season, more than 100 rigs were parked at the Swede Lake jump-off point. Virtually all of these hunters were riding ATVs.
Many of the trucks and motorhomes were hauling four ATVs with them. The Alphabet Hills system has an extensive network of trails, but there is little doubt that it was overcrowded. All of the trails are being pushed farther, extending into a vast spider web of new trails. Consequently, the quality of the hunting experience in such areas is deteriorating quickly.
Is that what we want — or rather, what we inevitably will face in Unit 13? The unit is the most heavily hunted area in Alaska. Management is presently on a three-year regulation cycle, but the Board of Game needs to revisit that format. Game populations and hunting pressures make dramatic swings that cannot and should not be addressed only by emergency orders.
As many Alaskans realize, the term "subsistence" is contentious. The feds and the state went around and around on the definition of the word as it applies to hunters — never arriving at a definition that satisfied anyone. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the federal hunt, defines "subsistence" by the individual hunters' place of residence. For example; a school teacher who lives in Glennallen for one year would automatically become a federal subsistence hunter. He or she would then be eligible for two subsistence caribou permits.
The state doesn't agree with this. Alaska's definition of a subsistence hunter includes most of its 735,000 residents. This season, because Fish and Game believes the Nelchina caribou population is larger than wildlife managers consider ideal, anyone who wishes can become a Tier I subsistence hunter.
Alaska also has a "community hunt" with its own set of requirements to become a state-sanctioned community. In a nutshell, any group of 25 or more people, regardless of where they live in Alaska, can become a "community" and be eligible to hunt caribou.
I'd guess that most who have hunted Unit 13 this season agree that there might be better solutions.
No one likes complicated hunting regulations. Folks tell me today that one needs to be a lawyer to figure out where and if they can hunt.
I've got news; it's likely to get worse. But there may be ways to clean things up.
The present definition of subsistence satisfies very few. It is not likely to change much.
Let's take a look at what has been done with fisheries. Subsistence gets first priority, personal use next, then sport, and lastly there is commercial use. Hunting has no allowable commercial use. Technically, Unit 13 caribou have no sport hunting unless there is an excess of caribou after fulfilling subsistence needs. Let's take a page from fisheries and add a personal use category.
We can also take steps to categorize hunters. Permit holders, whether personal use, sport or subsistence hunters, could have specific hunt periods designated on their permit. Spreading out hunting pressure would add significantly to hunt quality.
And lose the community hunt; it has never worked as its proponents visualized. It never will.
Call me an old fuddy-duddy searching for the good old days. But let's put some options on the table and see if we can improve everyone's hunting experience.
How bad is the hunt quality this season? A few days ago, upon hearing that caribou season was to be extended 10 days, a local lodge owner's only comment was, "Oh s***!" They'd seen enough and worried about finishing end-of-season chores before the snow flies, knowing the highway is plowed only until Sept. 30.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.