According to Alaska law, subsistence is the priority use of fish and game throughout most of the state.
Some Alaskans are born into a subsistence lifestyle. Others voluntarily select it. Alaska State Law provides a priority for all Alaskan residents, but carefully crafted regulations and abundance-based management also provide for increased subsistence harvest opportunities.
In the McGrath area, Nelchina Basin, and Alaska Peninsula, the Department of Fish and Game has worked diligently with the Board of Game to increase moose and caribou populations for Alaskan subsistence uses. These successes have been encouraging. For example, from 2004 through 2008 the moose population in the McGrath area nearly doubled in size and is now on the verge of completely meeting local needs.
In the areas of the state where it is most important, State policies, regulations, and programs are designed to help put more food on Alaskans' tables. Yet, rural subsistence users are often disappointed that the same policy is not in place on federally-managed lands.
Last October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the current federal subsistence program would be reviewed to see what the federal government must do to live up to their "obligations under the law." The subsistence review process was initiated to determine how the federal subsistence management program can better address the needs and expectations of Alaska's subsistence users.
On December 3rd, representatives from the 10 Regional Advisory Councils (RAC) traveled to Anchorage to weigh-in on this important issue. Among other points, the RACs voiced an overwhelming plea to the federal government to provide subsistence users with better wildlife management by joining in the state's predator management programs. The RACs have repeated this request for over a decade. The request creates a quandary for some federal land managers who, in recent years, have been unwilling to manage predators on federal lands.
Many Alaskans don't realize that the state has the responsibility to manage wildlife on all lands, regardless of ownership. The courts have repeatedly recognized that the states' sovereignty includes their authority to manage wildlife, and is protected under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the principles of federalism it embodies. Unfortunately for subsistence users, federal agencies control 60 percent of the land, and in recent years, some federal managers have failed to support implementation of the State's intensive management programs on federal lands.
It is worth noting that this most recent appeal for better management of federal lands comes from rural Alaskans who have already been granted a federal "rural" harvest preference on those lands. Many rural users who are surrounded by federal lands are beginning to realize that a priority provides little benefit when resources are scarce. As one frustrated RAC representative recently stated, "Do we manage it to give rural residents a priority, or do we manage it to give them the scraps?"
Until a decision is made to manage important federal lands for more abundant wildlife harvests, many rural users will likely remain dissatisfied. While the "leave nature alone" approach might appease some, it rings hollow for those who are intimately connected to the land and its resources but are going hungry. With proper management and abundant resources, we can provide ample opportunities for a broad range of users.
Only time will tell what insights the federal subsistence review will produce. Perhaps more will come to realize that working cooperatively with the state to improve and enhance Alaska's wildlife resources is far more productive than a dual management system that simply shifts the allocation of an already insufficient yield and further divides Alaskans. I certainly hope so.
Corey L. Rossi is the assistant commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.