Subsistence hunters object to land opening

Board decision opens federal land near Yukon River drainage to sport hunting

Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A decision by the Federal Subsistence Board to open up thousands of square miles along the Yukon River drainage and delta in southwest Alaska has drawn strong objections from subsistence hunters.

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The federal land has been off-limits to moose hunters from outside the region for 15 years and open only to local subsistence hunters.

Hunters along the Kuskokwim River - who volunteered to stop hunting moose there for five years to build up moose numbers - will now have to compete with sport hunters in the areas to the north, they said.

The Federal Subsistence Board lifted the Yukon closure to sport hunting last month.

Alaska residents will have the chance to kill a calf along the Yukon and the Yukon delta next winter or an antlered bull this fall or winter. Out-of-state residents will have the chance to kill an antlered bull this fall.

Myron Naneng, head of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said the six-member federal board should reverse its decision. Sport hunters seeking trophy racks or meat they do not need should not be allowed to kill moose until Kuskokwim hunters end their moratorium in that area in 2009, Naneng said.

Moose numbers are low on the Kuskokwim, even upriver where there is no moratorium, he said. The Mulchatna caribou herd to the south also has dwindled, leading to reduced bag limits. People have 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," Naneng said.

His association represents more than 50 villages and provides social services in the Yup'ik region. The decision amounts to a broken promise by the board, he said.

The federal board manages subsistence for rural residents on federally managed land and waters, about 60 percent of the state.

Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the board may not restrict sport hunting on federal lands unless it's necessary for the conservation of healthy populations of wildlife.

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, who voted to lift the closure on the Yukon drainage, said there are enough moose for the region's subsistence hunters and for sport hunters. Besides the sport hunting changes, she said, the board expanded two subsistence hunting seasons in the fall and winter.

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.

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, said Phil Perry, the state's area management biologist. 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. Anecdotal reports suggest moose numbers are growing there.

Under the new rules, there will be no limit on the number of sport hunters who can hunt on federal land, LaPlant said. Many areas are hard to reach and there should not be much sport hunting, he said.

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