Unique agreement allows Ahtna group to manage harvests, habitat
A new agreement between an Alaska Native Tribal group and the U.S. Department of the Interior sets up the first framework for joint-management of subsistence game hunting on federal lands and as well as game habitat enhancement on federal and adjacent Native-owned private lands.
Although somewhat similar cooperative agreements exist for subsistence taking of fish on certain rivers as well as waterfowl and walrus, this one is different because it has a Tribal group managing harvests for Tribal members along with habitat management, which is unique.
The agreement between the Interior Department and the Ahtna Intertribal Resources Commission, which represents several tribes in the Ahtna region of eastern Alaska, was announced Nov. 29 by Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor and Christopher Gene, chair of the Ahtna commission.
The Federal Subsistence Board approved the plan at its Jan. 13 meeting.
Several federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and Interior department agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, are members of the Federal Subsistence Board.
Approval by the board signals the alignment of essentially all federal land agencies on the Ahtna agreement.
While the State of Alaska and state lands are not involved, at least yet, state officials support the initiative, said Jill Klein, special assistant to state Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, at the Jan. 13 board meeting.
State Division of Game scientists are also working with the Ahtna Tribal groups on the habitat enhancement initiatives.
The deal will authorize the Ahtna commission to issue subsistence game hunting permits on federal lands for Tribal members along with pursuing cooperative habitat enhancement on federal and private lands owned by Ahtna Inc., the regional Alaska Native corporation for the area.
Non-Tribal members will still do subsistence hunts but will apply for permits under existing procedures administered by the Federal Subsistence Board.
What prompted the agreement was increasing pressure on hunting in the Ahtna region and the desire by local Ahtna people to have a role in management of the hunting.
“As Alaska’s population has grown, the Ahtna people have borne the brunt of increasing hunting pressure on their traditional lands because these areas are fairly accessible to much of the state’s ‘railbelt’ region, which is home to 70 percent of Alaska’s population,” said Deputy Undersecretary Connor.
The traditional Ahtna region encompasses more than 1.5 million acres from Cantell, near Denali Park, to Chitina, southeast of Glennallen.
Federal lands in the region include portions of Denali National Park and Preserve; Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge and scattered U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands.
“This agreement is an effort to help preserve their traditional way of life, put food on the table and improve wildlife and habitat populations for everyone,” Conner said in a statement.
Michael Johnson, the Alaska representative of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, said Connor and Jewell have taken a special interest in the Ahtna agreement after having met several times with people from the region.
Connor was in Alaska last summer visiting Glennallen and nearby communities to help finalize the agreement, which was signed this past November.
The Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, or ANILCA, passed by Congress in 1980 gives the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture authority to manage subsistence uses on federal lands in Alaska. The agencies have delegated this to the Federal Subsistence Board, which regulates activities.
The new arrangement with the Ahtna Tribes will operate under the Federal Subsistence Board under special regulations. There is no change to the legal authority of the federal government over subsistence.
The Ahtna commission represents eight federally recognized tribes in the Ahtna region including Cantwell, Mentasta, Cheesh’na, Chitina, Gukana, Gakona, Tazlina, and Kluti Kaah, Ahtna Inc., the regional corporation, as well as the Chitina Native Corp., the private village corporation for Chitina.
The Tribal commission will establish harvest limits, quotas, season dates and other procedures within the framework of the Federal Subsistence Board, and are aimed at insuring the sustainability of wildlife populations.
The Interior Department also agreed to establish an Ahtna regional local advisory board that will allow “greater reliance on local ecological knowledge by regional residents,” in subsistence decision-making, according to the agreement.
The Ahtna deal isn’t the first such cooperative arrangement between federal agencies and Alaska Native communities and Tribes, although it is different because it involves big game and with joint federal-private habitat management.
For years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had working agreements with local communities for subsistence fish management in federal lands along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. The federal wildlife agency also has long-standing cooperative agreements with local Native communities on walrus hunting and migratory waterfowl.
However, those agreements are more advisory and provide for communication, and do not involve the administration of permits by the local communities, as the Ahtna agreement will do, people familiar with the agreements say.
One exception to this is on Saint Lawrence Island, in the northern Bering Sea, where the management of walrus hunting has been delegated to the local communities.
All of these agreements, including Ahtna’s, function under the overall legal authority of the federal wildlife agencies.
One exemption to this is management of subsistence hunting of bowhead whales, which, by international treaty, is done by the International Whaling Commission. The IWC delegates the management of bowhead whale hunting by Alaska coastal villagers to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which regulates the harvests of bowheads to ensure they remain under a cap set by the international commission.
Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].