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Federal managers to keep Northwest caribou and moose hunt open for all

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This fall, moose and caribou hunting on federal lands in Northwest Alaska will be open to all licensed hunters. Regional hunters had requested the Federal Subsistence Board limit hunts to only local federally qualified hunters, as opposed to the Dunleavy administration, which wanted to keep the hunts open to all. 

Kotzebue hunter Thomas Baker chairs a regional advisory council which is on the ground hearing from communities that depend on subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering. He says there’ve been complaints of state licensed hunters arriving from all over, and disrupting moose and caribou migrations in Northwest Alaska. 

“These Outside hunters coming in, so we’ve gathered, add to the problem more and more each year to where people’s freezers are empty,” Baker said. People aren’t able to feed their families as they normally should.”

That led the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council to formally request — with the backing of local tribes —   that federal lands in Units 23 and 26A be set aside for federally qualified subsistence hunters. That would exclude state-licensed hunters in a huge area of federal lands in the Northwest Arctic Borough and the western half of the North Slope Borough in August and September when the caribou and moose herds are on the move. 

That led to pushback from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. Alaska Department of Fish and Game opposed limiting the hunt to subsistence. The agency argues that caribou populations in the Northwest are stable, and impacts from Outside hunters are marginal, says Deputy Commissioner Ben Mulligan.

“There’s nothing definitive saying that there’s a way that these guys are making that impact.”

He says the state is already actively working to regulate overlights from aircraft piloted by guides that could spook herds. But he says the opposition is overblown and cutting into the hunting guides business which hurts local economies. 

“Two or three folks from rural communities that said if they did shut this down, there were guides and transporters that utilize their communities and spend money in those communities that would then be impacted,” Mulligan said. “They would lose that revenue generator for them.”

The final arbiter in all this is the Federal Subsistence Board which hears testimony and reviews public comments before ruling on the regional proposals.

Robbin La Vine is a subsistence policy coordinator with the federal Office of Subsistence Management. The office is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says the board was flooded with comments ahead of its June 16 meeting. 

“I think we had 1,221 comments that were submitted, and the vast majority of those were in opposition to this special action,” La Vine said.

Many of these comments were from hunters in the Lower 48. Safari Club International, a hunter advocacy group, wrote a June 18 message to its membership declaring victory in the decision to keep the 40 million acres open to all. 

Ben Mulligan, the deputy commissioner, is a former board member of the Safari Club’s Alaska Chapter.

This month’s decision doesn’t lay the issue at rest. La Vine says the subsistence board felt it just needed more study.

“We are looking to gather a number of experts and stakeholders to help us better understand the issue, to work together and to inform a deeper analysis of the issue,” La Vine said.

Baker from the local subsistence council says the deferring of a decision until next year was fair. However, he says the problem has been becoming worse for years, and local subsistence groups believe that the impact is immediate and requires quick action.

“[We] favored this action taking place for just this one season because the nature of it is immediate,” Baker said. “We need this for this upcoming season. Because people have had bad harvest years, we need to do anything we can so we can make it a better harvest year.”

Additionally, Baker took exception to Outside hunters arguing that local subsistence hunters were making an emotional appeal to try and influence policy. 

“But in the same breath, they say ‘You need to keep this open because my 80-year-old father-in-law was planning to come up for his last big hunt and why would you deny this old man his dream?’” Baker said. “So the hypocrisy of people claiming that the people living here, on the ground, living off these rivers and the tundra and the mountains and the ocean, that we’re just being too emotional and we don’t have any hard data, it’s insulting.”

As the federal board looks to next year’s hunting season, Mulligan with the state says he’s happy that hunters who’d prepared for their trip to Northwest Alaska were not shut out this year.

“At the end, it enabled people who had planned to go hunting, had booked all the trips and done that to at least go out this fall and enjoy Alaska,” Mulligan said. “We like people to be able to go out and do that.”

The upshot of all this is that there will be no changes to hunting regulations in Units 23 and 26A this year. That means subsistence hunters seeking to fill their freezers and visitors from Outside seeking a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity are both eligible to join the hunt.

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