More than 100 people sat in folding chairs in a hotel banquet room, speaker wires taped to the carpet beneath their feet. Curtains drawn against sunlight, with coffee brewing on long tables, the seven members of the Alaska Board of Game and a squad of state officials listened, then listened some more.
The talk during the public comment period at the board's meeting ranged far outdoors, from the tundra to the sea, from the forests along Interior rivers to Anchorage's suburban fringe.
A mother of five from Sleetmute on the Kuskokwim River worried that her family and neighbors were not finding enough moose for food because of competition from other hunters and predation by wolves.
"There's an emergency out there," said 35-year-old Lorraine Egnaty, representing herself and the Central Kuskokwim advisory committee. "It's getting difficult. People in the village are having a hard time. Something has to be done."
A Fairbanks sportsman expressed concern about proposals that could keep urban Alaskans from hunting caribou across the Copper Basin and upper Susitna River valley.
"Personally, I would like to get rid of all these regulations and restrictions that are clearly designed to keep people out of their back yards," said Mike Kramer, from the Fairbanks advisory committee. "It splits us all, and it leads to unfortunate management decisions."
The local rep from Defenders of Wildlife said her group opposes new bear hunts near the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and predator control on federal lands, and she hand-delivered 6,062 letters from members to emphasize the point. Yet several hunters and local residents urged the board to keep predation control moving ahead as a way to get moose populations to rebound.
A Cordova guide warned that black bears have become scarce in western Prince William Sound and urged a change in seasons. A scientist cautioned that the state's predator control program was not justified. An Ahtna Native leader said proposals to revamp the Nelchina caribou hunts and subsistence rules in the Copper Basin were moving too fast.
And Native elders spoke of days when people hunted on foot for their moose and caribou, didn't drive four-wheelers or sleep in motor homes, and still worked hard to waste nothing, leaving behind only guts from their prey.
"We want to have our moose hunting the way we had it before," said Markle Pete, of Copper Center and the Copper River area. "We want to get that back."
These people and scores more spoke Friday and Saturday during the opening sessions of the game board's spring meeting. The seven-member panel, which sets wildlife and hunting policy for the state, opened a 10-day session on Southcentral and Southwestern issues, dealing with classic wildlife management questions as well as 157 specific proposals for changes in hunting or wildlife regulations.
The discussions have all emerged before on the board's agenda in other forms, board chairman Mike Fleagle said. Still, "the Anchorage Region 2 (meeting) does generate more of these kind of issues."
"This is a very issue-packed meeting," said Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife. "We've got several pretty large controversies."
Among the high-profile questions faced by the board are complaints by local people, often Alaska Natives living in remote villages, that they cannot find enough game to feed their families because of competition with hunters from other areas or out of state, and from too much predation by wolves and bears.
Partly as a response to those concerns, a slate of proposals would expand, or in some cases cut back, the state's controversial predator control programs aimed at wolves. Other proposals would make it easier to hunt bears and wolves, lifting restrictions in some areas on bait or use of vehicles and airplanes.
Other proposals drawing intense scrutiny:
* Expanding hunting moose in Anchorage, including the revival of a hunt on the Anchorage Hillside.
* Developing a new system for allocating subsistence permits for the popular Nelchina caribou hunt.
* Reopening areas adjacent to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for brown bear hunting and cutting back hunting on the nearby Katmai National Preserve.
Several of those testifying spoke against changing the McNeil bear hunting restrictions. Leo Keeler, with Friends of McNeil River and a one-time game board nominee, told the panel it should not be considering moves that would put the world's most watched brown bears in jeopardy.
"The board is doing a good job managing populations and making population-based decisions, but you're also charged with making cultural decisions, both for hunters and people who want to watch wildlife," he said. "The bears and their value, that's recognized throughout the state and the world."
Karen Deatherage of Defenders of Wildlife told the board that her group believes programs aimed at killing wolves were all "scientifically unsound." She said she opposes expanding moose hunting on the Anchorage Hillside and suggested that the department create an "Anchorage Moose Committee" to figure out alternative ways to deal with urban moose populations.
Mentasta resident Donna Pennington, a board member of the Copper Basin regional Native corporation Ahtna Inc., told the game panel that the eight Ahtna villages and the corporation face ongoing trespassing problems and competition for moose and caribou by people from Fairbanks and Anchorage. Changes need to be made to ensure that local people meet their subsistence needs, she said.
But the board needs to delay making sweeping changes to the rules for who is eligible for hunting Nelchina basin caribou, she said, and allow more time for people in the region to consider what should be done.
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at <email@example.com>
THE ALASKA BOARD OF GAME will meet to consider Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska issues today through March 13 at the Coast International Inn, 3333 W. International Airport Road just west of the intersection with Spenard Road. Public testimony will likely continue today, with the board scheduled to begin deliberations on 157 proposals and other issues after the comment sessions end. Call 1-800-764-8901 for updates.
Detailed information about the agenda can be found online at: