Proposed closures divide local, non-local hunters
Two proposed caribou hunting closures are dividing hunters. The line in the sand has predominantly been between locals and non-locals, who have both argued they should have a right to harvest the resource.
The Sounder previously reported on the community of Noatak, from which many residents spoke out in favor of a proposed closure for non-local hunters of caribou on Game Management Unit 23. The proposal mirrors one that is currently in place but that expires this summer.
In public meetings in Nome, Kotzebue, and Utqiaġvik, locals have come out in force to support the continued closure. Over the phone and sometimes in person, hunters from Fairbanks, North Pole, and out of state have shown up to voice their dismay at the proposal.
John L., speaking over the phone from Illinois during the Utqiaġvik meeting, said he is opposed to the closure because he is a federal taxpayer and therefore should have access to resources on federal land.
"I would like to see hunting opportunities remain available to non-local interest in Unit 23," he said. "I understand the potential for a closure of non-local interest if scientific evidence from wildlife professionals is substantial to warrant such. I do not agree, however, if political motivation is the determining factor for closure. I'm a federal tax-paying citizen that feels that federal lands are to be enjoyed by each and every one of its citizens."
The closure, if approved, would prohibit non-federally qualified hunters from getting caribou on federal public lands, such as those maintained by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Passing [this] would be an egregious action that extinguishes non-local access to a state-managed wildlife resource," said Larry Bartlett, of the Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers group. "Non-local caribou hunters deserve some tangible right to this state resource. Our tax dollars and industries support the study and management of these animals and the facilities in all of these rural communities."
Over the course of the public hearings, the state and federal taxpayer argument has been a common one, with non-local hunters saying it's inappropriate to close a shared resource to only one group.
"The Federal Subsistence Board was founded to protect the rural preference, and the State of Alaska and the Board of Game's purpose is to determine fair and equitable use of big game resources to all Alaskans," Bartlett said. "Let them have that control back. Non-locals demand some harvest allocation since the state has proven harvestable surplus."
Locals have countered by saying while there is a harvestable surplus, it should go first to those who live in the area and have less access to other supplemental food that is affordable — that access should be based on need, not want.
Another sticking point that has come up for locals during the meetings has been the idea of user conflicts. Several residents have told stories about non-locals failing to harvest all of the meat from a kill or not coming adequately prepared to haul the harvest. Many callers from outside the Northwest and North Slope have said this doesn't happen often enough to warrant a closure.
"Stated user conflicts are not factually founded, nor have the regional advisory councils provided real evidence of the stated conflicts beyond local opinion and when my rights are being removed, by God, I demand scientific evidence that justifies these closures," Bartlett said. "I challenge the Federal Subsistence Board to produce sufficient evidence to the public. If the board cannot, then the evidence does not exist and no legitimate reason for eliminating non-local harvest is on the table."
A second proposal that is also before the board is one to close caribou hunting to non-locals in Units 26A and 26B which fall near or in the North Slope and Interior areas.
The two proposals are quite similar, though hunting is currently open to all users in 26A and 26B.
Striker Overly, a third-generation guide outfitter based in the state, called in to the Utqiaġvik public comment session on the proposal to voice his opposition.
"I am the biggest outfitter and [about] 50 percent of the non-resident harvest is by my people," he said. "I am in absolutely no conflict whatsoever with any local people and have never seen any conflict up there."
He said in all his years in the business, he has never run into another local hunter in the area while out with his clients. However, he said he's afraid if federal public lands in the units are closed, that will push more hunters into smaller areas — being state-managed lands — which could create the very conflicts people are seeking to avoid.
"I'm hunting 150 to 200 miles on NPR-A land and have absolutely no conflict. However, if this closure is to happen, I have more than 30 hunters that are booked for this fall that will be hunting on state land within 30 miles of Nuiqsut, and all around Nuiqsut, because that is the only state land there is that is acceptable," he said. "So, it would be very bad for the people of Nuiqsut. I see it being nothing but negative for everyone. I don't see any positive in that. And it's going to force others to do the same. Unfortunately, most of the state land happens to be around the villages."
As his clients are already booked, he said he has no choice but to take them out, as his family has been doing since 1924.
Other speakers noted that while there are certain herds that are in trouble that cross Units 26A and B, the Porcupine Herd is also in the same area, and it is currently doing well. They questioned closing an area to only certain hunters when it would also close off access to a stable resource.
Both of the proposals were brought to the Federal Subsistence Board by regional advisory councils.