Last Sunday was opening day for the Nelchina winter caribou hunt — providing one lives in a federally designated subsistence community.
The winter season for the State of Alaska Tier I RC562 subsistence hunt, open to all Alaska residents, also was scheduled to open Sunday. However, an influx of successful permit reports arrived at the Department of Fish and Game offices on the last days of the September season, filling the 500 caribou quota for the season.
Why are there different seasons for different folks? How did this division come about? Is it fair?
Fair and equitable are two words which don't necessarily fit into the hunt scenario which now holds sway in Unit 13. There is a good reason why.
Two-thirds of Alaska's population is linked by road to the Unit. That's 550,000 people, many of whom would like a caribou in the freezer.
Cantwell, Delta Junction and Copper River residents, who feel they are the traditional harvesters of the Nelchina caribou herd which roams their backyard, feel they should have the first crack at caribou. Many urban folks, who also traditionally harvested animals from this same stock, also feel they should have harvest rights.
Unfortunately, the caribou herd cannot withstand the number of potential harvesters, both urban and rural, on a year-in, year-out basis. Hunt restrictions are necessary to prevent over-harvesting.
Based on a 1989 Alaska Supreme Court decision, the state says any Alaskan can participate in subsistence hunting. There was to be no division based on domicile.
The federal government disagreed; the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Act mandated subsistence priority on federal lands for rural residents.
The Department of the Interior began to monitor game usage and in 1990 drafted regulations finalized two years later. Alaska struggled for a few years to get its own regulations in compliance with the feds, but hunting groups would not budge. And so federal management of game resources on federal lands were here to stay.
1993 saw the establishment of local Federal Subsistence Councils to oversee and recommend regulations on lands under federal jurisdiction.
In 2012, the feds adopted a tribal consultation policy. Under this provision, the Council consults with federally recognized tribes to determine their needs.
Most recently, in 2015, regulations were loosened so that population is a less important criteria when the Federal Subsistence Board determines which communities are rural and which are urban.
The rural distinction is important for deciding who can hunt on federal lands in Unit 13.
The federal regulations for caribou and moose are far more liberal than state regulations. The catch, however, is that accessible federal land in Unit 13 is quite limited along the highway system. There is a pretty decent stretch south of Copper Center along the Richardson Highway but there are no caribou that way, just moose.
The locations where there are moose and caribou are smaller areas north of Sourdough, near Paxson and along the Delta Wild and Scenic River corridor.
The Richardson and Tangle lakes area will be heavily hunted. In the past five years, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 subsistence caribou permits have been issued annually. Of these, 1,500 hunters actually get out in the field. The success rate has ranged around 30 percent.
Small rural communities have a long history of sharing.
Sharing, plus "proxy" hunting, insures that many residents get at least a few meals of subsistence caribou, whether they get an opportunity to hunt or not. Urban communities undoubtedly distribute game as well, but the close family ties in Native villages ensures the majority of residents will get some game.
The federal government's rural designations give rise to an unsolvable inequity. The teacher or construction worker who moves to a rural-designated community becomes a resident after one year. He or she is then entitled to a couple of caribou — trumping the Native resident who has to leave the rural community to find work in an urban center.
Federal hunter or state hunter, rural resident or urban resident, all will find something that is not fair or just plain doesn't work for them. There will be no perfect solution, ever.
But there may be more even-handed resolutions available. We need to think outside of the tiny box of current Unit 13 federal and state regulations. Next week, we'll look at some of the possibilities.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.