State game managers are considering a radical overhaul of the Nelchina caribou hunt, one of the most popular yet problematic freezer-fillers in Alaska, and in the process they may redefine subsistence hunting in the 21st century.
If the Alaska Board of Game approves Proposal 155 next month, any state resident will be able to subsistence hunt in areas north and east of Anchorage for caribou and moose. It would be the first time in 15 years the highway-accessible hunt had such unlimited access.
But there's a catch -- several, actually -- designed to make the new hunt adhere more closely to popular ideas of subsistence. Those who signed up couldn't hunt or trap elsewhere in Alaska that year. They would have to salvage virtually every ounce of meat. And they couldn't use airplanes or motor homes, and might not be able to use some larger ATVs, in their quest.
The proposal was crafted by a committee of Game Board members, sportsmen and subsistence advocates. If it works as they hope, it will reduce the number of state-certified Nelchina subsistence hunters and free up enough caribou for a new drawing hunt open to any Alaska hunter.
"This is going to be a win-win for everybody," said board member Ted Spraker, a retired state game biologist who helped design the approach.
Not everyone who heard the proposal explained at the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee meeting Tuesday night was convinced.
"I don't think it's fair," said Howard Hansen, an Anchorage resident who has hunted the Nelchina caribou herd since 1962 and is among the 700-plus Anchorage hunters virtually guaranteed a permit under the current state subsistence system. "I'd rather have it stay the way it is," he said.
The Nelchina caribou hunt is unique because the area is ringed by highways and within a short drive of two-thirds of Alaska's population. In some years more than 10,000 animals have been killed in a season.
But since 1977, with too many hunters for the number of caribou, the Game Board has restricted hunting. At first, hunters were selected by random drawing, and Nelchina was considered a sport hunt, though a few area residents qualified for state subsistence permits.
The modern era began after the Alaska Supreme Court's 1989 McDowell ruling, which said all Alaskans, not just rural residents, qualify for subsistence hunting and fishing privileges.
Because the Nelchina hunt was restricted already, and because subsistence is considered a higher priority than sport in times of shortage, the hunt was designated subsistence, technically known as Tier II.
The state used a questionnaire to determine who, among all residents, would get the highly coveted Tier II permits. Applicants receive points on several questions, including how many years they hunted in the region, the cost of food and fuel in their community, and availability of alternative resources.
Since 1999, the number of permits has ranged from 2,000 to 10,000, depending on the size of the herd.
The proposed Nelchina plan came about because the Tier II point system has been a source of frustration and complaint, Game Board member Ron Somerville said.
"It's become a liar's contest to see who can come up with the most points," he said.
Last year, for example, applicants could get up to 50 points for the number of years they have "hunted or eaten meat from" the Nelchina caribou herd. Another 10 points are awarded for the number of years any member of the applicant's family has hunted in or eaten meat from the area.
As a result, more than a third of all Nelchina Tier II permits go to Anchorage and Fairbanks residents. They once may have hunted for food, Somerville said, but now rely more on Safeway and Costco to fill their freezers.
"To go up with a motor home and a six-wheeler to get 120 pounds of meat" is not a subsistence lifestyle, Somerville said. "Some board members, and I'm one of them, think it's strayed considerably from what people thought was subsistence" as defined in state law.
The subsistence regulations contain eight criteria that roughly define subsistence use, Somerville said. The criteria include long-term reliance on a wide variety of fish and game, and efficient and economic harvesting methods.
But the current point system is weighted heavily toward historical use, Nelchina hunt manager Bob Tobey said.
"If you're not a 48- or 50-year resident, you might as well not apply," he said, and young hunters are excluded completely.
Proposal 155 would eliminate Tier II and replace it with a system, used in other states and in some Alaska commercial fisheries, known as super-exclusive registration. You choose where you want to hunt or fish and stay there.
It would work like this: A family that chose to hunt in the newly formed Copper River/Cantwell Subsistence Community Harvest Area would automatically get a caribou and moose permit. Any Alaskan would qualify. Benefits would include longer seasons and more lenient bag limits.
To prevent everyone from signing up and creating the same problem that now exists -- too many hunters and too few game animals -- the proposal includes some stiff requirements. Nelchina hunters couldn't hunt or trap elsewhere in Alaska that year. They would have to salvage virtually all of the animal and haul it back with the meat still on the bone. Hunters couldn't use airplanes or large swamp buggies during the hunt or motor homes to reach the grounds.
The idea, Somerville said, is to require hunters to reflect the traditional idea of subsistence use.
"You hunt, fish and trap in one area," he said, rather than shoot a Nelchina caribou, a moose on the Kenai Peninsula, a sheep in the Wrangell Mountains and ducks in the Mat-Su.
The key to making the plan work would be reducing subsistence hunting demand in the Nelchina area. The amount of caribou needed to fill subsistence needs must fall below the number of animals available. If Proposal 155 were to cut demand, the state would have enough caribou to create a new drawing hunt in the rest of game unit 13.
Managers have nature on their side. The Nelchina herd has grown enough in recent years that Tobey expects to increase the number of permits for next fall to as many as 4,000, he said.
Supporters hope the numbers fall into place, said Denny Hamann, a lifelong Mat-Su resident and Tier II permit holder who helped develop the plan. If so, he said, "there's going to be a whole lot of happy Alaska hunters."
If not -- if there still aren't enough caribou to meet subsistence needs under Proposal 155 -- the Game Board has at least one other option for revamping the Nelchina hunt. Proposal 156 would change the point system and reduce the importance of historical participation. If that proposal were to pass, every Anchorage and Fairbanks hunter would be eliminated from the hunt.
Hansen, who has tracked caribou in the Nelchina highlands for more than 40 years, said he's not thrilled with either proposal. No one who lives on the state highway system needs to subsistence hunt, he said. "They can get to town to buy things."
But of the two proposals, he prefers the one that requires subsistence users to hunt close to home and nowhere else and that leaves some caribou for sport hunters to enjoy. Said Hansen, "That's best for everybody."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at email@example.com or at 257-4310.
THE GAME BOARD meets March 4-13 in Anchorage at the Coast International Inn, 3333 W. International Airport Road. The meeting is open to the public. The proposals, agenda and related information can be found at the board's Web site: www.boards.adfg.state.ak.us/gameinfo/index.php.