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Hunting season turns the Denali Highway area into a disaster zone

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 31, 2017

MACLAREN RIVER — Hunting season consumes some Alaskans. Perhaps the draw of the hunt is similar in other states, but I have little experience hunting outside of Alaska. There's no doubt that thousands of folks who term themselves hunters will begin flocking to Game Management Unit 13 on Friday.

To be sure, hunting has been open in one form or another for nearly a month. But for many Alaskans, the Sept. 1 opening of moose season marks the beginning of hunting season.

The kids have no school on Labor Day and the entire family can take the weekend to participate in the adventure. As someone who has more than 50 years watching the annual pilgrimage to the Denali Highway, I have seen a number of changes.  Some of them alarm me.

Dead, abandoned wildlife

Because of a poorly structured regulatory system, more and more people are forced into roadside areas with little available game. The results? Sub-legal animals left in the field and a substantial number of animals shot and left behind. The past few seasons, I have seen dead seagulls, porcupines, fox and other critters abandoned by the roadside.

Why? Frustration? Hunter education is required these days for everyone born after 1987 who hunts along the Denali Highway. This is a good thing and I am certain it helps, but hunter education alone is not doing the job. Overcrowding and an inequitable hunt structure trumps education in the primordial situation present in Unit 13.

Each season I ask a number of the Labor Day visitors what they think of the current regulations in Unit 13. I have yet to find one soul who tells me the system works well.

My next question is, "What changes would you implement if you were in charge?" There are surprisingly few variations to the answers:

No. 1 — Do away with the community hunt, which doesn't work for anyone. Originally, the community hunt was designed to help the local Ahtna villages with their subsistence needs, particularly moose. It worked well the first season, mostly because most hunters weren't aware of the new opportunity.

But the community hunt is an abject failure today. Eighty-five groups of people (minimum size of 25) from all over the state term themselves "communities."  They have a three-week jump on the rest of the hunting populace. This year, the community hunt opened Aug. 10.

Much of the community take is under an "any bull" structure for moose. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has set "any bull" limits in drainages throughout GMU 13. When the quotas are reached, community hunters may still hunt under the spike-fork, four-brow-tine or over-50-inch rules. Many of the 2,000-plus hunters who work the early season are from urban areas, and they bring lots of toys and access equipment. Plus, the regulations allow a hunter to shoot moose for other members of his or her community.

No surprise, the success rate is relatively high and enforcement is minimal.  Hunters are required to bring out the heart, liver, kidneys and body fat, though I wonder how many people are cited for leaving a kidney behind.

The original intent of the community hunt was admirable. The result is failure. Ahtna communities took almost no moose under the community hunt last season and only a few local communities participated. It's clear the community hunt has become an urban loophole. Lose it.

No. 2 — The rule that Tier I caribou permit holders may only hunt moose in Unit 13 is the second big gripe. This regulation has never served any purpose. It sprung from the corruption of a proposal that suggested requiring moose hunters to specify the game management unit they wished to hunt. The objective was to spread hunting pressure throughout the heavily hunted and accessible roadside areas.

The result of the existing regulation is to pack extremely high numbers of frustrated hunters into limited road and trail corridors, where the chance of success is close to nil.

Each Alaska Board of Game cycle sees a number of proposals from the public and area fish-and-game advisory committees to do away with this requirement. It has been routinely turned aside by an out-of-touch board.

Photographers, viewers use wildlife, too

Those are the two main peeves of visitors I informally survey. Other comments include limiting ATVs, greater ATV access, more nonmotorized areas and fewer nonmotorized areas. Some simply don't understand the need for closed areas.

No doubt, the hunting crowd tends to forget that Alaska game is for everyone.  Those who come to view, photograph and recreate with wildlife in the background make up a substantial portion of the visitors to GMU 13. These folks steer clear during the first couple weeks of September but are out in force during the first three months of summer.

Areas closed to hunting provide a safe haven for breeding animals. Big game becomes habituated to safe zones and will stay near to the highway all summer.  People favoring motorized, walk-in and closed areas must compromise with their fellow Alaskans.

To be sure, there's no single fix-it-all regulation that will satisfy everyone. However, ditching inequitable regulations that create two- and three-tier hunting crowds would go a long way toward repairing what has become a recreation disaster. And stacking more regulations on top of the unmanageable ones already on the books seems ridiculous. Let's start by accepting that what is in place does not work.

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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