One of Alaska's most intractable hunting issues -- who should be allowed to hunt
the 36,700 caribou roaming the Nelchina and Copper river basins -- was stalked
by the Alaska Board of Game this week through a thicket of sport-hunting and
local subsistence interests.
In the end, the board eased off the trigger.
After spending Monday and Tuesday in a lively discussion with Native leaders and hunting representatives, the seven-member board voted to revise a proposal to overhaul the hunting rules, with the idea that people in villages and Alaska's cities could study it further.
The board could then tackle the issue later, in time to change the rules for hunts in 2006. A committee led by board member Ron Sommerville planned to meet again Wednesday night and incorporate suggestions heard during public testimony and discussions.
The board plans to discuss the issue when it reconvenes first thing today, board chairman Mike Fleagle said.
"No matter what the board does, it's not going to be perfect," Sommerville said Tuesday. "But what we have right now, almost everybody agrees, is badly broken."
Ahtna leaders, representing Alaska Natives of the Copper Basin, had told Sommerville and other board members that the proposal was moving too fast, with details of the sweeping changes still unfamiliar to many residents in the region's eight villages.
"We're requesting that the game board delay this process," said Ken Johns, the president and CEO of Ahtna Inc. and a former Game Board member, in a brief interview on Monday. "The education process was not carried out."
The Nelchina caribou harvest has been managed under a complicated "Tier II" system that limits who can hunt based largely on their hunting history. Most of the permits go to urban residents rather than village residents, and few young people from rural or urban areas bother to apply.
In 2003, only 2,005 permits were issued to more than 7,800 applicants, with most going to Anchorage or Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Some 756 caribou were killed under state rules; Copper Basin residents took another 329 animals under a separate federal subsistence program.
Proposal 155 would replace the Tier II system with a "super exclusive" subsistence hunting zone. It would be open to any Alaska resident willing to hunt this area but nowhere else in the state. These hunters would also have to abide by restrictions that would make the hunt resemble what some view as classic or traditional subsistence. For instance, the rules might require salvage of all meat and bone, and might prohibit airplanes, motor homes or off-road vehicles.
Backers said they hoped this new system would reduce the number of state-designated subsistence hunters to people who really need the meat and practice traditional methods, Sommerville said. In years that the herd numbers were up, the new system would free up enough caribou for a drawing hunt open to nonsubsistence hunters from across the state.
The board, meeting in Anchorage through March 13, was also looking into several other proposals that touched on the Nelchina hunt, including one that would change the Tier II permit formula in a way that would eliminate all Anchorage and Fairbanks residents from the hunt, dramatically increasing rural participation.
During five days of talk and testimony, guides and hunters, chairs of advisory committees and hunting groups made dozens of suggestions. An Ahtna committee submitted four pages of single-spaced modifications.
Among the issues: Should moose or small game be included? How about trapping? Should people be allowed to use vehicles to retrieve game? Where should the boundaries of the "super exclusive" areas fall?
People seemed to agree on some elements: that all hunters should be required to report their harvest and that some types of vehicle use might be OK.
But many details were unsettled, and Native leaders worried in particular about the boundaries of the exclusive zones. The possibility that Ahtna people might not be allowed to hunt on Native corporate land -- an example might be about 750,000 acres inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve -- would not be well received, board member Roy Ewan said.
"I get the feeling that we're trying to hurry this up to please somebody else, and not the local people," Ewan told the group on Tuesday. "I get the very great sense that there might be lawsuits. I can't express how great it is that we delay this."
Game Board member Ted Spraker, a retired Alaska state wildlife biologist, told Ewan and others that the new proposal would increase the number of Native residents who could hunt caribou, and that it was important to keep working toward a solution.
"I sincerely believe that this is a better system for the Ahtna people," he said at one point. "It comes from the perspective to want to do more."
Mike Smith, with the Tanana Valley Chiefs Conference, said he didn't doubt Spraker's sincerity.
"It's just it's the old adage, 'We think we know what's best for you. Here's what we've done. What do you think about it?' he said. "I think it's the wrong approach."
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.