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Subsistence council calls for tighter hunting rules in rural Southeast Alaska

Hunters in Juneau are pushing back on proposals that could restrict their deer hunting rights in parts of Southeast Alaska. The Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Councilsays its proposals are responding to food security concerns from villages. 

Pelican deer hunter Terry Wirta testified this month to the regional subsistence council from the tiny hamlet on Chichagof Island. He says it’s been difficult for guys like him to fill his freezer. 

“I don’t know, things seem to have slowed down around here, and all I hear nowadays is a lot a lot of hunters want to be coming here.” he told the council on October 6. “I think the residents in Pelican should have the priority on hunting around here, I’ll tell you that much.”

He was supporting a proposal to restrict hunters from urban areas that hunt along Lisianski Inlet. It was one of a handful that would restrict deer hunting in areas popular with state-licensed hunters from bigger towns.

The strongest measure would be an outright closure of the southern portion of Admiralty Island to urban hunters. That’d be to give more opportunity to subsistence hunters living in nearby Angoon. 

That’s where council member Albert Howard lives. He says hunters coming from Juneau have access to cheaper fuel to run their skiffs. And if they need affordable meat, there are supermarkets like Fred Meyer and Costco.

“If an Angoon resident fails at hunting, heh, I don’t know how else to say it. But they’re S-O-L,” he said last week. “And we’re people that don’t like to depend on anybody, and I don’t want to go ask anybody for help.”

These rules would apply to federal lands. Much of Southeast Alaska is in Tongass National Forest. And federal law gives priority to subsistence hunting for those living outside of the urban areas of Juneau and Ketchikan. Everywhere else in Southeast from tiny Pelican to larger Sitka and Petersburg are considered rural. 

State and federal wildlife agencies opposed added restrictions on non-rural hunters. That’s because data shows the deer population appears healthy. 

The federal Office of Subsistence Management also argued that many hunters originally from Southeast villages move to larger towns like Juneau or Anchorage. They’d be restricted when they come home to hunt with friends and family.

Juneau-based hunters organize outcry against exclusion

Written opposition to the measures was overwhelming with more than 50 letters coming in against.

Territorial Sportsmen, a Juneau-based hunting and fishing organization, has lobbied hard against the proposals and encouraged its membership to chime in.

Ryan Beason is an accountant and commercial fisherman living in Juneau and the group’s president.

“We want to promote the rights to all hunters and Southeast and not limit each other,” he told CoastAlaska in an interview. “I think what these proposals are doing is creating conflict between user groups.”

The proposed restrictions on non-rural deer hunters were recommended by the council in amended form. They included urban hunters being allowed to hunt for bucks only with a reduced bag limit on areas of Chichagof Island near Hoonah and Pelican.

State tidelands would be exempt meaning state-licensed hunters could still cruise the shorelines in their skiffs.

“The mean high tide-line is all state land,” Beason said. “So beach hunting would still be allowed.”

Regional Advisory Council Chair Don Hernandez who lives on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island, told CoastAlaska the council has been hearing from villagers concerned about rising costs of fuel and aging rural populations. 

“There’s worry about the ability of people in these villages to get the food that they require add at a cost that they can afford,” he said.

He says he understands the wildlife agencies’ opposition. After all, on paper the deer herds are relatively healthy. But he says the regional advisory councils were set up to consider more than population surveys and the number of animals taken.

“The agencies, they rely on data. And the council, we listen to people,” he said. “You might call that traditional ecological knowledge. But it’s basically the stories of what people are telling us about what the actual conditions are. So we weigh that more heavily, I think, than the agencies do.”

Details still to come on RAC’s proposals

Final details of the recommendations approved earlier this month remain unclear even to council members and observers but will be published in coming weeks after the minutes of the multi-day meeting are finalized.

That’s because the federal Office of Subsistence Management says the precise language won’t be available until a court reporter prepares a transcript of the meeting and minutes.

But, those recommendations are not final. They’ll be forwarded to the Federal Subsistence Board which in mid-April will consider whether to incorporate these in the federal hunting regulations as early as next year. 

If they are adopted, it could limit deer hunting opportunities over large swathes of Southeast Alaska that had long been popular with sport hunters from larger towns.