The state made sweeping changes this week to the way it divvies up moose and caribou among hunters in one of Alaska's most popular, easiest-to-access hunting areas.
The move, approved Thursday by Board of Game in Anchorage, strikes at the long-running tension between Alaska's urban and rural hunters and comes after years of arguments over who should get first crack at game in an Indiana-sized stretch of land between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The Board voted to give a portion of Nelchina hunting permits to eight Alaska Native villages, where local hunters would then share the meat with neighbors. The regional Native corporation, Ahtna Inc., proposed the idea and will oversee the village hunts.
The vote does away with a controversial subsistence scoring system that rated applicants on how long they've hunted in the region. The state limits the number of moose and caribou hunters can bag in the region each year, so hunters who don't live in one of the villages will apply to hunt for the remaining eligible game.
Under the new rules, the Ahtna villages will be able to bag up to 300 caribou and 100 moose -- which is roughly twice as many animals as hunters in those villages currently take, said Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley.
This year, an estimated 600 to 700 additional moose and at least 700 caribou would be available for other hunters.
The Board and Ahtna officials hammered out the compromise this week.
"It provides for the village and it also provides a hunt for Alaska at large," said Ahtna chief executive Ken Johns.
Under the previous rules, some villagers were denied subsistence permits. This gives them a chance to fill their freezers, Johns said.
Some hunting advocates say they're willing to give the idea a try after years of gridlock and arguing, but questioned whether the new rules are legal.
The state constitution has been interpreted to say you can't favor rural hunters when deciding who gets to subsistence hunt.
"The board, with the support of the administration, clearly is going a direction that may be constitutionally dangerous," said Rod Arno, executive director of Alaska Outdoor Council.
"But socially," Arno added, "Maybe there's some merit to it."
Arno said the changes may also pit hunters who live in towns like Glennallen -- which is within the same game management unit but is not eligible for the subsistence hunt -- against those who are eligible because they live in the nearby Ahtna villages.
Ahtna's attorney on the issue, Sky Starkey, said other communities can apply to take part in the subsistence harvest over time.
Asked if the move opens a back door to giving rural Alaskans a subsistence hunting preference, Starkey said the new hunting rules are instead a way to make sense of what he called the state's crippled subsistence law.
"It's not a rural preference at all," Starkey said. "It provides an opportunity for the state to -- wherever there's these kinds of hard-to-figure-out situations around subsistence uses -- it gives the state an opportunity to really look and provide for core villages uses and make a sensible situation for all users."
Johns is ready for any complaints from city hunters who might want to subsistence hunt in the Nelchina basin.
"Some people said this is unconstitutional and doesn't provide for everybody equally. (But) we don't live in an equal society," he said.
People in the villages pay more for food, he said. Their fuel and electricity is more expensive, while city hunters are free to hunt wherever they want in the state, Johns said.
UNDER OLD SYSTEM
The area in question is roughly 23,000 square miles between Cantwell and Glennallen. You can get to it from the Parks, Glenn, Richardson and Denali highways.
Here's the way the hunt used to work:
The state considered all the caribou in region necessary for subsistence use. That means hunters who traditionally shot the caribou to feed their families were supposed to get first dibs through a complicated "Tier II" application process.
The longer you've hunted and eaten Nelchina caribou and moose, the better your chances of getting one of the subsistence permits.
But many hunters hated the process because they thought it became a game of "liar's poker" where people fudged their hunting histories in hopes of getting a permit, Bartley said.
Ahtna officials told the Game Board this week that an attempt to inject people's incomes into the equation -- so people who made less money had a better shot at getting a subsistence permit -- effectively punished villagers with good-paying jobs.
About 1,500 people live in the eight Ahtna villages, according to the state. The new rules begin this year, with many questions still to be decided, including how the remaining permits will be awarded to people who don't live in the villages. The goal is to give everyone else the opportunity to get a permit at least once every four years, Bartley said.
The idea is to bring back a traditional, community style of hunting.
Think of it like a whale hunt on the North Slope, Bartley said: A few hunters would go out, get some game, and distribute the meat.
He said anyone who lives in the villages will be eligible for the hunt.
"The only group that clearly stands to lose is the thousand, or two, people who have gotten a Tier II permit every year," Bartley said.
According to Arno, many of those permits went to people who live in places like Palmer and Wasilla and have hunted in the Nelchina area for decades.
Johns, the Ahtna president, said anyone who wants to become eligible for the new subsistence hunt is free to move to one of the villages.
"There's no laws or any borders that prevent them from moving to a rural area," he said.
Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334