Subsistence Hunters Lose in Court

CLOSED AREAS: Residents of areas near urban centers wanted a state exemption

Tom Kizzia / Anchorage Daily News / January 17, 2004

The Alaska Supreme Court strengthened the state's ability to make broad decisions about closing areas to subsistence hunting in a decision handed down Friday.

The court overturned a lower court ruling that could have granted priority subsistence opportunities to residents of Ninilchik, Eklutna and Knik. State regulators had declared the villages ineligible when they declared most of the Cook Inlet region a "non-subsistence area."

Friday's decision only affects the state's subsistence program.

Subsistence hunters have a priority on state land under state law, just as they do on federal land under federal law. But under state law, every resident may qualify for subsistence, not just rural residents. This can create a crunch on state and private lands near cities.

In 1992, the state closed the Anchorage region, among others, to subsistence. Tribal governments for the three villages appealed in court, first attacking the constitutionality of "non-subsistence" areas and then saying they'd been unfairly lumped in with Anchorage.

The case volleyed through the court system for a decade. In 2000, the villages won a decision under Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner. But his decision was overturned Friday, bringing the long case apparently to an end.
The Supreme Court said the joint state boards of fish and game had acted reasonably when they created the non-subsistence area including the three villages. State law sets out a list of socioeconomic criteria for determining such areas, weighing the relative importance of subsistence in those more urbanized regions.
Also losing in the case was the Kenaitze Indian Tribe of Kenai, which had intervened to seek subsistence rights.

The decision will have no immediate practical effect, because people in those communities had been barred from local subsistence hunting pending resolution of the case, said Goriune Dudukgian, an Alaska Legal Services lawyer who represented Knik and Eklutna.

"Most of the time it's pretty clear if an area is subsistence or non-subsistence," Dudukgian said Friday. "Nobody's arguing there should be subsistence fish wheels in Ship Creek. But on the margins, in places close to urban areas, that's where the problem is."

Federal land managers are now undergoing their own review of how to determine if an area is "rural" and qualifies for subsistence priority under federal law. Some of the same issues, and the same villages, enter the debate on the federal side. Most subsistence fishing issues fall under federal jurisdiction.

The state's non-subsistence areas cover the Anchorage-Kenai-Mat-Su region and zones around Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan and Valdez.

Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at or in Homer at 1-907-235-4244

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