As the state’s largest Alaska Native organization closed out its 57th annual convention in Anchorage on Saturday, it called on Congress to expand subsistence protections amid a court battle with the state over fishing rights.
Amid increasing concerns about shortages of fish and game across the state, the Alaska Federation of Natives also passed several other resolutions to set its political priorities for the year to come. That included supporting a predator control program to boost Mulchatna caribou numbers that’s drawn criticism from scientists and conservation groups.
Subsistence concerns dominated convention discussions this year amid a court dispute between the state and the federal governments over who should manage subsistence fishing on a portion of the Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska, from Bethel to Aniak, that has seen poor returns of salmon.
In response to the state’s arguments in the case, the AFN passed a measure on Saturday calling on Congress to “take immediate action” to strengthen and permanently protect the right of Alaska Native people to engage in subsistence fishing and hunting.
The resolution didn’t provide specific details about what steps Congress might take, but attorneys representing Alaska Native interests have argued that Congress can significantly expand federal management on rivers across Alaska.
The Alaska Federation of Natives, which has intervened in the case on the side of the federal government, has said the state is attacking a key subsistence right that gives rural residents who are mostly Alaska Natives a fishing priority in times of shortage.
AFN leaders have called this fight with the state “the big one,” after decades of disputes with the state over subsistence.
Shortly after the resolution was approved, state officials issued a lengthy written statement responding to specific aspects of the resolution.
Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state “fervently supports subsistence hunting and fishing rights for Alaskans and will continue to do so.”
Douglas Vincent-Lang, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the state has “closed or restricted other uses, such as sport or commercial, in times of shortage when subsistence uses would be impacted. We will continue to do so.”
The Native organization’s resolution process on Saturday managed to avoid the internal divisiveness that erupted at last year’s convention in a dispute between Alaska Native regions over commercial salmon fishing off the Alaska Peninsula.
That floor debate led to the withdrawal of the Aleut Corp., one of five prominent Native organizations to pull their membership in recent years, though AFN continues to represent hundreds of groups and more than 160,000 individuals.
Support for Mulchatna caribou predator control
The Alaska Federation of Natives approved a measure urging the continuation of a predator control program designed to increase the Mulchatna caribou herd in Southwest Alaska.
Some scientists and others have expressed outrage over the program after Department of Fish and Game employees killed nearly 100 brown bears in less than a month early this summer, from a helicopter above caribou calving grounds.
The measure was approved by a large crowd of AFN members without opposition.
Stosh Hoffman, an Alaska Native from Bethel who serves on the seven-member Board of Game, was on hand for the AFN vote.
He said the continuation of the predator-control program is critical to helping ensure that rural Alaskans can have enough traditional food to hunt and eat, especially in light of the dismal salmon returns on the Kuskokwim River that have hurt subsistence families in the Southwest region.
The Mulchatna caribou numbers have crashed from around 200,000 animals in the 1990s to fewer than 13,000. That herd used to provide five caribou per hunter, he said. But hunting has been halted for four straight years, including a season that would traditionally start soon.
Hoffman said the predator control program is a factor the state can control, unlike climate change, which is often cited as a reason for the falling herd numbers. He said the program is limited to small areas, only the calving grounds, targeting bears that have learned to take advantage of the calving.
The Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Anchorage attorney Michelle Bittner brought lawsuits against the state challenging the predator-control program. Alliance director Nicole Schmitt said in an interview that the state’s own biologists have said predation is not the cause of the decline. Instead, they cited disease and poor nutrition. “We’re saying solve the problem, don’t shoot a bunch of wolves and bears and say you’re solving the problem,” she said.
Jerry Burnett, chair of the game board, said in an interview that the board recognizes that bears did not cause the crash, but the program can help caribou recover, he said. “This is not intended to produce more caribou for more sport hunters,” he said. “This is for the people who live out there and depend on the food.”
AFN also passed a resolution calling for tribally designated seats on the Alaska Boards of Fisheries and Game to boost rural participation on the board.
Investigation into deaths in state custody, and support for ranked-choice voting
The Alaska Federation of Natives also passed a measure calling for an independent investigation into the high number of deaths of incarcerated Alaska Natives. The review should include the health of the victims and health care they received, along with other conditions of their confinement, and identify solutions, the measure said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska issued a media statement expressing support for the resolution immediately after it was passed. The group has filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of James Rider, who died in the custody of the Alaska Department of Corrections in 2022.
In 2022, a record high of 18 people died in state custody, half of whom were Alaska Native. Seven of the Alaska Native people died by suicide, the ACLU said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives also voted to support the continuation of Alaska’s open primary and ranked-choice voting system.
The group’s resolution said the system provides more opportunities for Alaska Natives to run for office and get elected, in part because it supports individual views over extreme partisanship.