ANCHORAGE - As waterfowl wing their way to northern nesting grounds by the thousands, key Alaska Native groups are fighting a new federal requirement that subsistence hunters must buy duck stamps.
Representatives with the Association of Village Council Presidents, the North Slope Borough, and other rural organizations say the $15 cost is another fee that villagers, who are just hunting to survive, shouldn't have to pay.
The concern comes as subsistence hunters face penalties for the first time this spring if they don't buy and carry the stamps.
Native members of a migratory bird panel, meeting in Anchorage last week, said the law is unfair.
Many subsistence hunters don't work and can't afford the stamps or the $100 ticket. Others can't buy the stamps because they're not available in all villages, they said.
AVCP President Myron Naneng said his group, a voice for dozens of Southwest Alaska tribes, believes the requirement is illegal. Wildlife protection officers can ticket him this summer, he said.
"I'm not going to buy a duck stamp because I'm not a sport hunter," he said.
The federal Duck Stamp Act, passed in 1934 to fund the purchase of new waterfowl habitat, requires that waterfowl hunters 16 or older buy the stamps and carry them in the field.
In practice, Alaska subsistence hunters have been exempt from buying the duck stamps - they're like big postage stamps - for years.
The federal government has slowly begun to change that. In 2001, Lauri Adams, the Interior Department's regional solicitor in Alaska, issued an opinion that subsistence hunters need to buy the stamps for the spring and summer hunts.
In the 2008 season, the agency launched a three-year plan to prepare hunters to follow the law, said Gary Young, assistant special agent with USFWS law enforcement office in Anchorage.
The first season, officers focused on educating hunters. Last season, they gave verbal warnings.
This year, hunters can be ticketed for not carrying and signing their duck stamps.
AVCP doesn't believe the solicitor's opinion was legal, said Naneng.
For one thing, the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council did not give its consent, he said. The group, created in 2000 to offer advice on subsistence harvests, consists of the USFWS, ADFG and 11 representatives from Alaska Native groups around the state.
The panel met Wednesday in part to discuss items surrounding the new hunting period, which began April 2 and ends Aug. 31 in most areas of the state. Also, hunting stops for a month between the spring and summer seasons, often in June.
In Western Alaska especially, waterfowl hunting plays a critical role in subsistence diets.
On the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 2007, more than half the households in the region participated in the hunts, killing an estimated 70,000 ducks, geese and swans, according to figures from the state Fish and Game Department.
John Reft, representing the Sun'aq tribal government in Kodiak, told the panel he's worried about villagers that don't have money.
"These people in outerlying villages don't have jobs," he said. "They want to eat, support their families. That's all we want to do here, just to survive."
The North Slope Borough Assembly and other Barrow-based groups recently passed resolutions opposing the duck-stamp opinion, said Taqqulik Hepa, the borough's Department of Wildlife Management director.
"(Duck stamps) are not a traditional and customary practice for Alaska Native people," she said.
The Bristol Bay Native Association also supports AVCP, though that regional Native group says subsistence hunters should try to buy and use the duck stamps until the requirement is changed, said Molly Chythlook, the association's Natural Resources director.
However, some hunters have said they're not always available for purchase in villages, she said.
And while the stamps can be purchased on the Web, some villagers don't have computers or don't know how to use them, some rural panel members said.
The duck stamps are supposed to be available at all U.S. Post Offices in villages, but some postmasters haven't started selling them like they should, said Donna Dewhurst, A wildlife biologist.
At the meeting, Sandra Tahbone of Nome, representing Kawerak Inc., said Fish and Wildlife hadn't done a good job of educating the public about the changes.
The agency has tried but will strive to do better, Young said.