Westlake initiates bill to protect caribou herds
The dwindling caribou herds of northern Alaska are the focus of a bill introduced April 5 by Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana).
House Bill 211, titled "An Act requiring a nonresident to be accompanied by a guide or resident spouse or relative when hunting certain caribou; and providing for an effective date," was referred to House Resources the same day.
"I know it's going to be a really hot-button issue," Westlake said over the phone from Juneau. "But it isn't about the game management units, it's about sustaining those caribou herds that we depend on."
As of Tuesday morning, the bill only covered the Porcupine, Central Arctic, and Western Arctic caribou herds, which Westlake said was an oversight on his part.
"I heard from the North Slope. They love it and want it to advance," he said. "I dropped the ball, though, and they want the Teshekpuk Lake herd added, as well, which is what we're doing now."
He said he planned to make that amendment the same day.
"I had my staff pull up everything we have," he said. "You've got these places like Utqiaġvik where they did their own bag limits out there because they were so concerned [with the drop in numbers]. The hunters started imposing their own limits."
The bill specifies that nonresidents must apply for big game tags to hunt caribou from the listed herds. Then, before the tag can be issued, the hunter must provide to the state an affidavit stating the applicant will be "personally accompanied" by a qualified guide.
Since introducing HB 211, Westlake noted he's heard from some out-of-state guide groups who are unhappy with the proposed change.
"They could understand what I'm trying to do but they're opposing it on general principle," he said.
An important component of the bill to Westlake is that it isn't dependent on game management units within the state, as many recent nonresident hunting restrictions have been. Rather, the restrictions follow the herds themselves.
"[The caribou are] still following their traditional routes but we're starting to see them [coming] later and, hopefully not, but maybe with climate change coming on, [they may] move their migratory patterns," he said. "They [should] absolutely rule. It should be regardless of what game management unit they're in. Then you don't have sit-down hunters that don't know any better disrupting the pilot herd that comes through."
He cited issues reported over the last several years from residents across the region.
"It [would get] rid of a lot of the transporter problems like they have had in Anaktuvuk Pass," Westlake said. "It will quit disrupting the caribou routes, which has been an issue and you won't have a bunch of discontented outside hunters because the transporter drops loads and loads of people off. They're concerned about transporting; it's not about whether or not they get anything."
After its introduction, the first hearing of the bill was scheduled for April 12 in House Resources.
"I'm trying to expedite it," Westlake explained. After the committee hearing, the bill will go to the floor for a House vote, followed by the same in the Senate.
"What it boils down to is I've never shied away from the fact that we're subsistence first and resource development second — and a strong second, mind you — and this goes a long way in showing that this is what we value the most," Westlake said.