For years now the state of Alaska Board of Game has been attempting to change the Nelchina caribou herd hunt so that new hunters could obtain a caribou hunting permit.
I support a person's right to hunt. I also fully support the current state subsistence law, which gives priority to subsistence users when the game population cannot sustain all hunting.
Under the current hunting regulations, a Tier II permit is issued to applicants who demonstrate a long, traditional and customary use, taking into consideration distance to obtain affordable gas and food, etc. This was done because of the McDowell decision, which made everyone in the state of Alaska a subsistence user.
Before the McDowell decision it was fairly simple -- you live in a designated rural area, you receive a permit in times of shortage. This ensures that the people who live near, and depend on, the wild game or fish as a way of life will have first claim on the resources.
So what is the Board of Game up to now? First of all, the lead person on this issue from the Alaska Game Board is Ron Sommerville, who has been very outspoken against a rural subsistence preferences in the past. Another person who is highly interested in this hunt is Rod Arno, a big game-guide who is very much involved in the Alaska Outdoor Council, a group that does not support a rural preference for subsistence hunting.
This is how their proposal will work: Every hunter in Alaska will be able to obtain a Nelchina hunting permit, but there is a catch -- you must sign an agreement not to hunt anywhere else in Alaska. You will be able to hunt only in a very restricted area in Unit 13.
There are several problems with this plan. First, the McDowell decision was based on giving all subsistence hunters, which is everyone in Alaska, equal opportunity to hunt throughout the state.
The state constitution protects this equal opportunity, which is why all Alaskans are considered subsistence hunters. If you sign the agreement, this is like saying you may receive a state Permanent Fund check only if you agree to spend it in your home town, village or city. I believe that the state constitution protects my hunting rights and that the state Board of Game cannot restrict me to just one hunting area.
This proposal also allows any Alaska resident who applies to automatically obtain a permit. So what does this do? It puts tens of thousands hunters in a small and restricted area. For 90 percent of the hunting season, August and September, the herd is not present in the area.
This creates another legal problem -- the Board of Game in the past has designated Unit 13 as a subsistence-use area. The Copper River Native Association has well-documented interviews, maps and other correspondence that clearly outline this as a subsistence-use area. In order for the Board of Game to allow a sport and nonresident hunt, it will have to revisit the customary and traditional use of the area. It cannot arbitrarily draw boundaries in a subsistence-use area.
There will certainly be legal challenges to this area if this proposal passes the Board of Game. So when the smoke clears, why is this proposal being generated? I can only conclude that the sport-hunters and the big-game guides want to dump hunters in Unit 13 because this would lessen the pressure in other hunting-guide areas in Alaska.
Ahtna villages do not support this dangerous and detrimental proposal. Our only resolve and recourse is for the courts to reverse the McDowell decision -- or for the Alaska Legislature to amend the state constitution to allow for rural preference.
Ken Johns is president and chief executive officer of Ahtna Inc., an Alaska Native corporation