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Birds without borders

December 8th, 2017 | Jennifer Nu Print this article   Email this article  

As Alaskans around the state celebrate the holidays, subsistence bird hunters and their families in rural Alaska communities are thankful for another year of welcoming the abundance of wild bird meat to their tables.

Migratory birds are, and have always been, part of a mosaic of animals that sustained Alaska Native and other northern peoples. People in different parts of the state hunted at different times of the year whenever the migrations passed through Alaska for nesting and feeding on their route to wintering grounds in other states and other countries. Spring and summer hunts were an important source of fresh meat when winter supplies of food were running low. Being able to hunt birds kept people from starvation.

Yet not long ago, spring/summer subsistence bird hunting was illegal in Alaska. For decades, subsistence hunters largely flew under the radar of authorities in order to feed their families. Steadfast persistence and the spirit of cooperation by Alaska Natives and their state and federal agency partners led to a monumental revision of international treaties and national laws that made way for today's management system.

The first part in this two-part series begins with the contentious saga of managing migratory birds in Alaska. Securing a legal subsistence hunt in Alaska eventually led to the formation of a group called the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council (AMBCC) to set regulations and recommendations regarding the conservation and sustainable harvest of migratory birds in Alaska. Its dedication to the conservation and management of birds without borders is a lesson in how a diverse group of stakeholders can work together for a common goal.

'Duck-in' protests laws restricting hunting

Migratory bird management began in the early 1900s. The United States signed a treaty with Canada in 1916 because bird populations suffered severe declines and extinctions due to in part to overzealous commercial hunting to supply feathers for fashionable women's hats. The U.S. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in 1918, and the treaty became law. Additional treaties with Mexico, Japan and Russia followed. The Act closed migratory bird spring and summer hunting from March 10 to Sept. 1 to protect birds during nesting times and allow the populations to recover.

After Alaska statehood in 1959, this law was extended to the fledgling 49th state. Federal game wardens began enforcing a ban on spring and summer hunting, causing great hardship in people's lives.

"At one of our meetings, I heard the story of a father who walked for days to go hunting," said Patty Schwalenberg, the executive director of AMBCC and the Chugach Regional Resources Commission. "He got ducks and a game warden confiscated his gun and the birds. It took him three years to save up enough money to buy that gun. He had to walk home with no gun, no birds, and he had to face his family and tell them he was unable to provide for them."

The treaty aimed to curb destructive commercial hunting in the Lower 48, but it unexpectedly interfered with people's livelihood and survival in Alaska. Enforcement led to mistrust and poor relationships between subsistence hunters and the government agencies.

The legendary 1961 Barrow Duck-In united community members in a celebrated act of solidarity and protest. After two subsistence hunters were jailed, local leaders gave each man, woman and child a duck. Over 150 people turned themselves in to be arrested, according to the documentary 1961, "The Duck-In," directed by filmmaker Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson. The injustice of the law became clear, and the game warden was unable to arrest everyone. Because changing the international treaty with Canada was perceived to be too challenging, spring and summer bird hunting remained illegal, though enforcement rarely took action against people.

Efforts were made by Alaska Natives and federal and state wildlife agencies to legalize the spring migratory bird hunt in Alaska in the '70s and '80s, but these stalled. Misunderstandings about spring subsistence hunting from non-Alaska Native sport hunters in Alaska and the Lower 48 contributed to reluctance to support amending the treaty.

Y-K goose management plan

"The real momentum to amend the treaty came in summer of 1983," said Tom Rothe, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game Waterfowl Coordinator.

By the late 1970s, the cackling goose population that nests in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta had dropped from 350,000 to 25,000. White- fronted geese dropped from 400,000 to 100,000.

Brandt said that nest in colonies in the Y-K Delta also showed major decline.

The agencies urgently needed to reduce the harvest of birds on both ends of the Pacific Flyway. The summer nesting grounds in the Y-K Delta were at one end, and the wintering grounds in California were at the other. "These birds nest primarily in the Y-K Delta. For many people in the Y-K Delta, restrictions were enforced," recalled Myron Naneng, a Yup'ik leader from Hooper Bay.

Rothe began working at ADFG in 1983, supporting his director's drive to bring diverse stakeholders together to figure out how to reduce the bird harvest. The list included USFWS, state fish and game agencies in both states, National Audubon Society and sport-hunting groups.

The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) set up the Y-K Delta Waterfowl Conservation Committee under Naneng's leadership to represent the concerns of subsistence hunters.

"As you can imagine, the first time everyone gets together, there's temptations to point fingers at the other guys, but the agencies took a neutral stance," said Rothe. Focusing on solutions rather than blame eventually led to robust negotiations and lasting agreements. "Ultimately, we were able to agree on the poor status of the goose populations, the amount of harvest occurring and that the best thing to do was to reduce the harvest." The YK Delta Goose Management Plan was created in 1984 to restore and maintain healthy populations of four goose species that nest in the Y-K Delta and winter in the Pacific Flyway.

"The YK Goose plan was a very innovative approach to cooperatively solve problems. We created a whole new process and whole new organization to work on goose management, which led to the inevitable need to amend the treaty so that we could deal with the process for legalizing spring/summer hunting," explained Rothe. Conditions had also become favorable for negotiation. The Canadians wanted a legal murre hunt in the maritime provinces, and the Americans wanted legal subsistence hunting in Alaska.

Education and outreach was the next step in gaining enough national support for changing the treaty ,since it would require an act of Congress to approve it.

"I remember one Senate staff person asking why we couldn't start chicken farms in the villages," said Mimi Hogan, a retired migratory bird subsistence coordinator for the USFWS. "We had to explain why subsistence is so important in the villages."

"We had to convince people in the Lower 48 that it was necessary for Alaska subsistence hunters to be part of the management process so we can actually talk openly whenever issues come up," said Rothe. It took years to gain support. The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWA) was a key player to supporting treaty amendment. Alaska Native and agency representatives also sought support from the flyway councils, since Alaska birds overwinter in states belonging to the four flyways that divide the Lower 48 into four north-south geographical corridors.

Negotiations began in the mid-'90s, and the U.S. State Department stepped in to assist. After 80 years, the treaty was finally amended in 1997 to allow migratory bird subsistence harvest by rural Alaskans who have a tradition of spring and summer hunts.

Next week, this feature story will cover further developments with AMBCC and the remarkable story of migratory bird management in Alaska.

More information about the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council can be found at

Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Alaska. Contact her at


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