Tribal hunting rules stalled

Plan to give tribal rules force of federal law put off until next congressional session

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

FAIRBANKS - Efforts to give Alaska Native tribes the authority to manage seal, walrus and whale hunting appear to have stalled for another year in Congress.

The House Resources Committee held its last official markup session of the year today and amendments to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act were not taken up, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The committee and its subcommittees have held several hearings on the subject in recent years. At the most recent hearing in June, administration officials said they were working on a proposal that could give Native tribal rules the force of federal law.

That proposal hadn't surfaced by late July though, so the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans approved its own version of the legislation. The version doesn't change existing tribal authority with regard to marine mammal management.

The subcommittee bill is now ready to be considered by the full committee. However, committee spokesman Matt Streit said it's not likely to have a hearing in the near future. Congress is to adjourn in mid-October.

In the 1972 marine mammals act, Congress split management authority between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service had authority over hunting of sea otters, polar bears, and walrus. The Fisheries Service had authority over hunting of sea lions, seals and whales.

Congress also allowed subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives and said agencies could restrict such hunting only if a mammal population becomes depleted.

In recent years federal agencies have signed agreements with several Native groups that give the organizations a formal voice in management decisions and encourage them to set hunting guidelines.

"The harvest management system would be greatly strengthened by providing a mechanism to enforce subsistence harvest restrictions developed through these agreements," NMFS director William Hogarth said at a June hearing.

Marshall Jones, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said current management efforts are "strictly voluntary efforts carried out on a village-by-village basis."

Also federal law doesn't allow hunting restrictions until after a species becomes depleted. That's the wrong time to impose restrictions, Jones said.

Rosa Meehan, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's marine mammals program in Anchorage, said the administration's proposal had been held up by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. She said the administration may establish management rules on a government-to-government basis with tribal organizations.

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