Some rural Native communities are protesting a decision by the state Board of Game to heavily cut back the practice of "proxy hunting," in which hunters can exceed limits in order to provide meat for the elderly and disabled.
The decision, by the board in January, eliminates the practice in many parts of the state, including in popular moose and caribou hunting areas in the Nelchina Basin northeast of Anchorage.
Hunters in urban areas are abusing the program, said state Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley. They solicit multiple proxies from senior citizens who don't need the meat and end up keeping it for themselves.
"People are going into pioneer homes and getting people to sign up," he said.
The law is not being broken, he said, but the "intent of the law" is.
Proxy hunts jumped by almost 20 percent, from 1,598 to 1,909, in 2004, the most recent year with statistics.
The move is drawing protests from some Native Alaskan communities, who argue that proxy hunts are necessary for elders who are physically unable to hunt for themselves.
"The reality that our elders might starve this year greatly angers our village," Gordon Carlson, president of the tribal government in Cantwell, wrote in a recent letter to the Game Board.
The state program allows disabled residents and senior citizens over the age of 65 to select a fill-in hunter. It was created by the Legislature in the early 1990s to enshrine the tradition of sharing among Alaska hunters, especially in rural areas with a strong subsistence culture, said Bartley.
"But it hasn't developed that way," he said.
At its January meeting, the Game Board eliminated proxy hunting in game units with antler restrictions on moose or where there's a bag limit of one deer or one caribou. It also limited the number of proxies allowed per person, to two per species.
The changes, scheduled to go into effect July 1, will eliminate proxy hunting in most caribou and moose hunting areas around Anchorage, Palmer and Wasilla, Bartley said. It also eliminates proxy hunting in several rural caribou and moose hunts.
The board will take public testimony on the topic at its March 10-20 meeting in Fairbanks, said chairman Mike Fleagle of McGrath, who voted against the proposal. The board may reconsider its 4-3 decision, but Fleagle said he doubts the votes will change.
The issue will be taken up again, Fleagle said, because the board's attorney said more discussion may be needed to ensure the changes could be legally defended.
Board member Ben Grussendorf, who voted for the changes, said he's willing to listen to other ideas. Abuse in the proxy system is a growing problem, he said, but he wants to make sure the board regulates problem hunters only. The changes might create unnecessary hardship for some residents.
"Do I penalize 95 percent of the people because there's abuse by 5?" he asked.
The Nelchina Basin, with its highway-accessible hunts, sees some of the busiest proxy hunting in the state. About 20 percent of the state's caribou and moose proxy hunts occur there, Bartley said.
Permits in the basin's Tier II caribou hunt are usually hard to come by, Bartley said. Permits are awarded based on a point system that favors older residents with decades of experience hunting the herd. But hunters get around that requirement by obtaining a proxy from an eligible senior citizen.
Carlson agreed the system is being abused. Hunters from Anchorage and Fairbanks have been known to hunt near Cantwell, some 200 miles north of Anchorage, "with eight, 10, 12 proxies," he said.
Still, Carlson called the board's decision "too drastic." He wants the board to change its votes and allow one proxy permit at a time per hunter, he said. Hunters who legitimately hunt for several needy elders could still do so. And problem hunters, required to re-apply at a state Fish and Game office before each additional proxy hunt, would be discouraged.
"If it even cuts (the abuse) in half, it's a step in the right direction," he said.
Ken Johns, chief executive of Glennallen-based Ahtna Corp., said rural hunters are being penalized for the mistakes of urban hunters.
"This hurts us," he said.
"That's our tradition, that we go out and hunt for our grandpas and grandmas and our elderly moms and dads, and a lot of people depend on that."
He said Ahtna, a Native regional corporation, is considering suing the board because some game units are affected and not others.
He predicts strong opposition at the next Game Board meeting. About 20 Ahtna shareholders attended the January meeting and walked out in protest. They'll be back next month, he said.
Rod Arno, executive director of the pro-hunting Alaska Outdoor Council, said the board should stick with its decision. It's the most restrictive solution, and it comes "closest to stopping the abuse."
He'll rally the group's 12,000 members to support the board's decision, he said. Hunters who wrongfully acquire multiple proxies are denying other hunters a chance for game, he said.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4310.