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Federal Office of Subsistence Management to move under the direct supervision of the US Secretary of Interior.

Photo by Mariam Nanalook, submitted to AFN's 2023 Subsistence photography contest.
Courtesy of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Photo by Mariam Nanalook, submitted to AFN's 2023 Subsistence photography contest.

The U.S. Interior Department is pulling its federal Office of Subsistence Management (OSM) out from under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued an order on Thursday, transferring subsistence management to her office on July 15.

The order responds to calls from Alaska Native communities for a bigger voice in managing subsistence, in the face of climate change and widespread population declines of wild foods like salmon and caribou.

In its announcement, the Interior Department noted that Alaskans are more reliant on wild fish and game as a major source of food than any other state.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was given authority to manage subsistence in 1999, after the state failed to pass a constitutional amendment for a rural subsistence priority.

Back then, Sky Starkey represented tribal organizations to protect rural priority. Today he’s an attorney with Landye, Bennett & Blumstein, an Anchorage-based law firm which represents tribal interests.

Starkey recalls a quick transition from state to federal management. He says there wasn’t much thought about whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be the best agency to oversee subsistence management on federal lands, because it was viewed as a temporary move. There were still hopes that the state would eventually amend its constitution, so it would comply with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, a federal law that gives rural Alaskans a priority for subsistence on federal lands and waters. But that never happened.

“As an accident of history, it stayed that way,” Starkey said. “And this recent action by the secretary just corrects that.”

Starkey hopes the reorganization will prioritize the needs of Alaska’s subsistence users.

“Certainly putting them under the secretary’s office highlights their mission, gives them more independence and strength, more profile and a lot more control over their mission and their budget,” he said.

The idea to move the office was first touted by Alaska’s sole US House representative, Democrat Mary Peltola. She first mentioned the shift as one of her priorities in a speech during the Alaska Federation of Native’s Convention in Anchorage last October. She told the gathering that Fish and Wildlife siphoned off funding meant for subsistence management and used it for other “unrelated funding needs.”

In a statement Thursday, Peltola praised the Interior Secretary for taking action. “I have worked with the administration to address concerns regarding operations within the Office of Subsistence Management, and am grateful to see progress. This move will keep more of OSM’s funding within OSM, uplifting the interests of and opportunities for subsistence users across Alaska.”

In her statement, Peltola also mentioned her late husband, Gene "Buzzy" Peltola, Jr., who was the first Alaska Native manager of the Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge. Later, he served as the regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska.

“This is something that my husband Buzzy and I worked on together. I know he’d be proud to see it happen,” Peltola said.

The Interior Department announcement comes four months after the agencyannounced a proposal to add three additional seats to the Federal Subsistence Board. The new board members would be nominated to the Federal Subsistence Board by tribal governments, and according to the Interior’s proposal, they would “possess personal knowledge of and direct experience with subsistence uses in rural Alaska.” The proposed change would also require the Chair of the board “to have personal knowledge of and experience with rural subsistence uses.”

Emily Schwing and Sage Smiley at KYUK contributed to this reporting.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.