The state Board of Game's 4-3 vote to curtail hunting by proxy in several game units makes sense as a first step.
Proxy hunting is a system by which the state allows a hunter to exceed the individual bag limit if he or she also hunts for an elderly or disabled person. "The intent was to enshrine a longstanding Alaska tradition of sharing," says Bruce Bartley, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
That tradition goes back a long way in rural Alaska, particularly in Native communities, where hunters provided for those no longer able to provide for themselves. State law simply recognized part of Alaska life.
But, Bartley says, it's become clear that some hunters use proxy permits as a loophole to slip into hunts they otherwise wouldn't qualify for. They're hunting for themselves, not the aged or disabled. Most of these are urban hunters from Anchorage, Palmer or Wasilla. What they stand to lose more than anything else from the board's decision is a shot at a highly coveted permit for the subsistence-only Nelchina caribou hunt -- 141 caribou and also 36 moose were taken with proxy permits issued for beneficiaries in Anchorage, Palmer or Wasilla last year.
Most of the protests over the Game Board action, however, have come from Native communities, which see the new proxy limits as a threat to their traditional hunting. According to Bartley, figures for 2004 show that, for example, under the new regulations, Copper Center would have lost three caribou and Glennallen would have lost seven taken by proxy hunters. While those communities would still have subsistence hunts, their overall harvest would be reduced.
Opponents argue the new curbs on proxy hunts will take away their right to feed their elders. That's a right that deserves respect.
The Board of Game, however, is right to close the proxy loophole. A law intended to protect and encourage Native cultural tradition -- and a tradition practiced by Alaskans from a variety of backgrounds -- shouldn't be abused to circumvent state hunting rules.
As Bartley says, the proxy issue centers on access to the Nelchina caribou herd, the herd most accessible to Southcentral hunters. Each year the state turns away thousands who want permits for that hunt. The hunting regs may need reform, but ending proxy abuse isn't the only way to do it.
The new regulations take effect July 1. That leaves Board of Game members time to look for a compromise at their March meeting in Fairbanks.
Game board member Mike Fleagle and tribal leader Gordon Carlson of Cantwell suggest that a tighter limit on proxy permits might be one solution. A hunter can now sign up for only one proxy permit at a time, but some have figured out they can hustle the system by visiting multiple Fish and Game offices, getting a permit at each stop. Hence, the stories of hunters in the field with a pocket full of proxies.
Proxy reform is a touchy business because the issue opens urban versus rural and Native versus non-Native battles that are inevitable when game is in short supply and demand is high. The board should be sure that proxy hunters who abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the law don't lose those opportunities. Native traditions should be honored, in deed as well as word, while the board finds a way to still draw a bead on abuse.
BOTTOM LINE: The Board of Game should find a way to allow hunters to help put meat on the tables for those who cannot hunt for themselves.