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Board of Game must revamp Nelchina hunting regs, restriking balance

Game Management Unit 13, on the south side of the Alaska Range, is the most heavily utilized hunting area in Alaska. Hunters from Anchorage, Fairbanks and local communities all depend on the big game resources provided by the Nelchina caribou herd and a relatively healthy moose population.

In recent years, however, the Alaska Board of Game, charged with the crafting of hunting regulations, has struggled to come up with an equitable management strategy. The health of the ungulate population is its first consideration. That's the easy part.  Dividing the resource among conflicting user groups requires far more finesse.

Increasingly, there is disagreement between the Native communities of the Copper River Basin — including Copper Center, Chitina, Tazlina — and urban hunters.

Alaska law states that all Alaskans are "subsistence" hunters. In an attempt to satisfy two diverse groups of users, the Board of Game has used various management strategies. But the increasing numbers of urban hunters, along with their improved mechanized access, has created competition and some strife between two very different communities.

Four-wheelers everywhere

Back in the day, folks could shoot up to four caribou each and any moose with horns in Unit 13. Limited highway access and few trails kept hunters concentrated. It was not uncommon in the 1960s to see 30 or 40 trucks lined up along the road waiting for a caribou herd to cross. Off-road rigs were limited to those with big tracks. Snowmobiles allowed for increased winter access, but ATVs were not available until the early 1980s. Today, the vast majority of city hunters haul a trailer full of four-wheelers or side-by-sides when they come to hunt.

All the additional motorized transport has expanded available hunting areas and reduced bag limits. Fewer animals are available along the highways. In many cases, local users lack the means to compete in the new off-road climate.

Recognizing this, the Board of Game has tried several methods in an effort to mitigate the conflicts and satisfy all hunters.

Tier II, Tier I and a registration hunt have all been tried with varying degrees of success.

14,000 permits

A relatively new concept called a community subsistence hunt has been tried the past half dozen years too. This hunt, along with the Tier I subsistence hunt, has been the working model in the Copper River Basin for several years.

The Tier I caribou hunt is basically a registration hunt with a few wrinkles.  Any Alaskan who applies for a caribou permit will receive one. Prospective hunters must apply by mid-December and agree to not hunt moose or caribou in any other game management unit in Alaska that year.

One drawback: During a year such as this one, more than 14,000 caribou permits are handed out. That means all of these guys are also competing for moose — in an area with very few roads.

The community subsistence hunt was created in an effort to give local Native communities a leg up on ever-increasing competition from urban hunters.

The community subsistence concept worked as intended in 2008, its first year. Ahtna communities in the Copper River Basin harvested more than 90 moose and a substantial number of caribou. For the first time in years, residents had enough meat in the villages to meet their needs.

But state law cannot restrict hunting to only Native villages. So soon, other community groups applied for the hunt. The original eight communities involved in the community hunt has ballooned to 73.

There is no end in sight. Community subsistence hunters are given advantages over all other hunting groups. They're allowed to take a specified number of bull moose without antler restrictions.  The season is longer.  And the legal hunt area includes GMU 11 and a section of GMU 12.

Ahtna Tene Nene' residents, faced with dramatic competition from other communities, has seen its moose and caribou harvest fall to a tiny fraction of the total take. In an effort to stem the tide of hunters from other parts of Alaska, Ahtna has petitioned the Board of Game for a special session.

In response, the board agreed to conduct a teleconferenced, listen-only session Oct. 23.  Comments are due from the public and advisory committees by Oct. 13.  Ahtna villages are asking that community subsistence participants to be allowed an increased "any bull" harvest and a doubling of the caribou bag limit from the current one per household. They are also petitioning the game board to bring back the old Tier II system and apply it to community hunt participants.

'A reasonable opportunity'

The board has been working to tweak the community subsistence program since its inception. The issue is simple and one conclusion is inevitable: The community hunt idea doesn't work — and it never will — because the board cannot legally limit the hunt to rural residents. Without a rural preference clause, not allowed by our state constitution, urban hunt groups will always find a way to meet any and all community subsistence hunt requirements put forth by Ahtna, the Board of Game, or any other group.

In a 2006 policy statement, the Board of Game stated: "Hunt conditions should be made for the purpose of using moose in a manner consistent with customary and traditional use."   That sounds good — as long as everyone can agree on what's traditional, and how it applies to all user groups.

Alaska State law directs that hunt regulations "provide a reasonable opportunity for subsistence."   Good luck.

Rather than attempt a remake of a flawed program, all groups should sit down at the table with honest compromise in mind. Either that, or return to a general, everyone created equal hunting season and let the Feds continue with their user-driven approach to biology.

Mary Kuepper packs meat from the caribou she shot in the Maclaren area along the Denali Highway. Kuepper had one of the 14,000 Nelchina caribou permits handed out this year. (Buck Kunz)

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.

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