Subsistence hunters who put down their guns to protect moose along the Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska say they are outraged over a federal board's decision opening a vast swath of land to the north for sport hunters seeking the animals.
The federal land -- thousands of square miles along the Yukon River drainage and delta -- has been off-limits to moose hunters from outside the region for 15 years. Only local subsistence hunters, including those along the Kuskokwim who volunteered to stop hunting moose for five years, have been allowed to take moose there.
The Federal Subsistence Board lifted the closure last month. Alaska residents will have the chance to kill a calf along the Yukon and the Yukon delta this winter, or an antlered bull this fall or winter. Out-of-state residents will have the chance to kill an antlered bull this fall.
Subsistence hunters like Myron Naneng want the six-member federal board to reverse its decision. Sport hunters seeking trophy racks or meat they don't need shouldn't be allowed to kill moose until Kuskokwim hunters end their moratorium in 2009, Naneng said.
Moose numbers are low on the Kuskokwim, even upriver where there is no moratorium, he said. And the Mulchatna caribou herd to the south also has dwindled, leading to reduced bag limits. Naneng said people are having trouble getting food to eat, so many villagers travel north to hunt moose.
The board's decision is a slap in the face because the "people in the villages are the ones that are sacrificing and allowing populations to increase," said Naneng, head of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents more than 50 villages and provides social services in the Yup'ik region.
The decision amounts to a broken promise by the board, which is supposed to protect subsistence users, he said.
The federal board manages subsistence for rural residents on federally managed land and waters, about 60 percent of the state.
The Kuskokwim moratorium is based on a similar moratorium on the lower Yukon River downstream from Mountain Village. Yukon villagers volunteered to stop hunting there between 1988 and 1994.
That moratorium is credited as the key factor for the moose population's rapid growth, said Dan LaPlant, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works for the board.
Judy Gottlieb, one of four board members who voted to lift the closure on the Yukon drainage, said there's enough moose for the region's subsistence hunters and for sport hunters.
Gottlieb said that the board must provide the opportunity for subsistence, and that it did so. It also expanded two subsistence hunting seasons in the fall and winter. Instead of about 50 days during those two hunts, subsistence hunters will now have about 80 days.
She said she understands that the change is difficult for subsistence hunters to stomach after they've been cutting back for several years. "But we did liberalize opportunities for subsistence users as well as (sport hunters)."
The hunts on federal land will take place under state law in Game Management Unit 18, a 41,000-square-mile area encompassing the Yukon and Kuskokwim drainages.
For 30 days beginning Sept. 1, Alaska hunters and out-of-state hunters can bag an antlered bull in the Yukon region. From Dec. 20 to Jan. 10, Alaska hunters can bag an antlered bull or calf, depending on where the hunt takes place.
Those hunts already existed on state land in the region and were managed by the state, said Phil Perry, the state's area management biologist. But there's very little state land in the game unit. Sport hunters take less than five bulls a year, he said.
An estimated 4,000 moose have been counted along the Yukon in the game unit, with the biggest growth in the area where villagers stopped hunting, he said. There were about 1,000 in the early 1990s.
About 75 moose were counted along the Kuskokwim in 2002, when villagers stopped hunting moose there. That's the last available count, in part because weather didn't cooperate last winter, Perry said. Anecdotal reports suggest moose numbers are growing there too.
HARD TO GET TO
Under the new rules, there will be no limit on the number of sport hunters who can hunt on federal land, LaPlant said. But there shouldn't be much sport hunting because many of the areas are hard to reach, he said.
Bethel resident Steve Powers, owner of transporter PaPa Bear Adventures, submitted the proposal. Officials with the delta's wildlife refuge have asked transporters to not drop off hunters along the Yukon or its main river systems where local subsistence hunters might go, he said. They'll also go down river from Mountain Village, where the moose population has grown the most.
"This had nothing to do with us making a bunch of money," Powers said. "It was strictly from the standpoint that I'm a taxpaying citizen, that's federal government land, and there's no longer a requirement for subsistence."
AVCP is surveying villages to see how many people travel to the Yukon drainage and delta to hunt, said Timothy Andrew, AVCP's wildlife resource manager. It's more than the board thinks, he said.
If hunting pressure increases too much, the board can change the decision, Gottlieb said. "We'll be open-minded about that," she said.
Find Alex deMarban online at adn.com/contact/ademarban or call 257-4310.
Moose on the rise along the Yukon River
Yukon River moose numbers in Game Unit 18 have grown dramatically since the early 1990s. Wildlife biologists credit a self-imposed moratorium on hunting by villagers along the lower Yukon downstream of Mountain Village.
Moose counts in the Lower Yukon census area, from Mountain Village to the mouth, have increased 27 percent annually since 2002:
1992 (28 moose) 1994 (65) 2002 (674) 2005 (1,700)
Andreafsky Census Block, from Pilot Station to Mountain Village and Andreafsky River Drainage:
1995 (52) 2002* (418)
Paimiut Census Block, roughly from Pilot Station to Paimute:1992 (994) 1998 (2,024) 2002* (2,382)
Rule changes in Game Management Unit 18
A decision by the Federal Subsistence Board last month resulted in the following changes to sport and subsistence moose hunts in Game Management Unit 18.
In the lower Yukon River area (downstream from Mountain Village):
State regulations provide for a fall hunt from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30 for one antlered bull and a winter hunt open only to state residents from Dec. 20 to Jan. 10 for one antlered bull or one calf.
Federal subsistence regulations provide for a fall hunt from Aug. 10 to Sept. 30 for one antlered bull and a winter hunt from Dec. 20 to Jan. 20 for one moose.
In the area of the Yukon upstream from Mountain Village and to the edge of the Kuskokwim River drainage:
State regulations provide for a fall hunt from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30 for one antlered bull and a winter hunt open only to state residents from Dec. 20 to Jan. 10 for one antlered bull.
Federal subsistence regulations provide for a fall hunt from Aug. 10 to Sept. 30 for one antlered bull and a winter hunt from Dec. 20 to Jan. 10 for one antlered bull.