Wolf Song of Alaska News

Board to Tackle Subsistence Hunt for Nelchina Caribou

Copper Basin: If passed, the proposal would end subsistence privileges

Elizabeth Bluemink / Anchorage Daily News / October 8, 2007

A state board will decide today whether to toss or advance a controversial proposal to eliminate subsistence hunting on lands in the Copper River basin.

The proposal has many Alaska Natives and residents of a few Copper River basin communities in an uproar over their subsistence privileges.

"We still do live (the subsistence) lifestyle. Some of us have jobs. Most of us don't," said Gloria Stickwan of Ahtna Inc., a Native corporation based in Glennallen.

The proposal is aimed squarely at the desirable Nelchina caribou herd.

The road-accessible herd attracts hundreds of local hunters and thousands of nonlocal hunters each year -- more than the number of caribou that can be taken.

A citizen fish and game advisory panel in the Mat-Su pitched the idea as a fix to the state's legally troubled system for divvying up the popular caribou harvest.

People have complained for years that the hunting permits for Nelchina caribou are awarded unfairly, and last year the state created a new permitting scheme -- awarding permits based on income level. The new system is locked in a court dispute.

The proposal, if passed, would remove subsistence privileges from a large swath of land bounded by the Parks, Glenn and Richardson highways.

The proponents say Copper basin residents shouldn't qualify for subsistence privileges anymore because the land isn't like the rest of the Bush -- it's road-accessible, among other things.

The proposal would allow anyone in Alaska to have an equal right to hunt caribou or moose on the land.

The Joint Board of Fisheries and Game will discuss the proposal today during its annual meeting in Anchorage. The board cannot make a final decision in favor of the proposal until next year, though it can decide now to drop it.

Some rural and Alaska Native hunters who spoke up at a joint boards meeting on Sunday argued that the Copper basin, though road-accessible, hasn't totally evolved into a cash-based economy, and people who live there rely on subsistence hunting.

But some nonlocal hunters from Fairbanks and the Mat-Su said retail expansion along the highways has made subsistence a lot less important in the region.

"When I'm there I see a cash economy," said Fairbanks hunter Mike Kramer, who chairs his city's citizen fish and game advisory committee and has visited the Copper basin since the 1980s.

Some Natives who attended the committee meeting bristled at the nonlocal hunters' allegations of a decline in subsistence hunting in the region.

"Come up to our area and we'll show you how we live in our subsistence way," said Linda Tyone of Copper Center.

State officials, who are neutral on the proposal, laid out statistics on Sunday showing that the Copper basin economy, population and hunting participation haven't changed much in the last few decades.

There are also few year-round jobs in the region, some residents said.

The last big job opportunities were decades ago -- mainly, the building of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said several residents, including Don Horrell of Glennallen.

Most people who hunt Nelchina caribou do not live in the Copper River basin, according to state Department of Fish and Game statistics.

In the previous 13 years, about 950 Copper basin residents hunted caribou in the proposed non-subsistence area, but thousands of hunters drove in from outside the region.

The Copper basin is virtually the only place where its residents hunt, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's subsistence division.

Some large organizations have lined up on either side of the debate. Ahtna Inc. and the Alaska Federation of Natives oppose the non-subsistence proposal.

The sport-hunting group Alaska Outdoor Council is recommending that the joint board consider the proposal at its 2008 meeting.

The board is expected to vote this afternoon whether to drop or advance the proposal.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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