More than 50 Alaska Natives carried signs and walked the sidewalks through an early-morning drizzle Saturday in downtown Anchorage, protesting Board of Game proposals that would radically overhaul the popular Nelchina caribou hunt.
Later, the wet-haired marchers shed rain jackets and stuffed themselves into a warm hotel conference room, testifying before the board that the proposals would take meat from their tables.
The Game Board, in a special meeting expected to last through Monday, might end the controversial and highly restricted Tier II subsistence hunt in the Nelchina basin north and east of Anchorage.
People have complained for years that there aren't enough permits to go around and the hunt needs fixing, board members said. As in other Tier II hunts, permits are awarded based on such criteria as hunting history or years of eating meat from the herd.
But the highway-accessible Nelchina hunt is so popular it's become fraught with problems, board members said. Some applicants lie to win permits and lifetime Alaska residents can't enter until they're 38, they said.
The board can choose from a list of options that range from minor adjustments to fundamental changes. But the most controversial idea would remove the Tier II hunt and give every Alaskan a shot at the moose and caribou in game management unit 13.
Should that proposal be approved, Nelchina subsistence hunters couldn't hunt anywhere else in Alaska. They'd also be limited to what the Game Board calls "super-exclusive" areas around Copper River and Cantwell where subsistence hunting would be allowed.
The proposal would give hunters more access than they've had since the Alaska Supreme Court's 1989 McDowell ruling required that all Alaskans, not just rural residents, have subsistence rights. The Tier II system was created in response to McDowell.
The board must redefine subsistence needs in the region before it can remove the Tier II designation. If it determines that there are enough moose and caribou to address those needs, it could also allow a general drawing hunt. That hunt would take place at the same time as the subsistence hunt in the super-exclusive areas.
Many of the protesters, most from eastern Interior villages, dominated public testimony Saturday, with about 50 signing up to speak. They sat among a handful of recreational hunters.
The proposal would severely reduce traditional hunting grounds, leaving an area where the caribou rarely migrate, they said. Others complained that it is wrong to limit subsistence hunters to one state hunt a year, allowing each household one caribou and one moose.
Now, each household participating in the state subsistence hunt is allowed three caribou and one moose. They can also participate in other state hunts.
Elders, assisted by an Athabascan interpreter who sometimes shouted into their ears, spoke first.
Gulkana's Ben Neeley, 93, wore a ball cap and a hearing aid. He said caribou and moose were once plentiful. They'll be even harder to find if the proposal passes, bringing more hunters.
"I used to go out there, get moose," he said. "Now you never see nothing."
Subsistence advocate Katie John, 91, spoke forcefully. Her voice echoed in the room and she chopped the air with her hands.
"We got subsistence," she said. "Now they gonna take it away. I got grandkids growing up. What they gonna do?"
Board member Ted Spraker said the hunt needs to change.
"It flat does not work," he said.
The Tier II hunt doesn't always resemble a subsistence hunt, he said. Some hunters come in motor homes or travel from as far away as Barrow, spending hundreds of dollars just to arrive.
The caribou population, estimated at 40,000, is considered healthy. But of the almost 8,000 people who applied for a caribou permit this year and next spring, about 5,500 were successful.
The board may not choose to create the super-exclusive areas, Somerville said. It might agree to retain the Tier II system but adjust how permits are awarded.
The only proposal supported by the villagers would give more points to applicants with higher food and fuel costs in their community. It would reduce the importance of hunting history, allowing younger hunters to enter.
Spraker said he opposes that idea. If only 2,000 permits are awarded under that plan, Fairbanks and Anchorage residents would not be allowed into the subsistence hunt.