Tribal organizations are asking to take over some aspects of wildlife management, or at least to have a greater voice in the process.
That larger role in the process — an effort the Alaska Federation of Native has supported — known as co-management could ultimately simplify things by bringing all the players together.
Currently, the State of Alaska manages most land and water. The Board of Fisheries and Board of Game are responsible for most policy and allocative decisions; the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is responsible for day-to-day management. The federal government also plays a management role for lands under its jurisdiction.
In Southcentral Alaska, Ahtna Inc. is trying to develop a co-management project that puts a Tribal commission at the heart of subsistence wildlife management on Tribal and Native corporation land in the Ahtna region.
On the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Association of Village Council Presidents is trying to develop a Tribal fisheries commission.
But for either effort — or any other — to come to fruition, several hurdles remain, including the need for legislation to authorize the projects, funding and other issues.
The state constitution — which mandates that state resources benefit all Alaskans — can also be interpreted to be at-odds with some components of the proposals.
However, the state is amenable to working with landowners on land management, and open to some versions of co-management, within the bounds of current regulations, wrote Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell in an email.
“We have had significant discussions with landowners, including Native corporations, about developing partnerships to enhance management of privately-owned land in a way that respects the rights and responsibilities of the landowners as well as the department’s charge to manage fish and wildlife and have made progress in that regard,” Campbell wrote. “There are co-management structures in this state that are currently functioning, such as the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council, that could be models for future efforts.”
Despite the challenges, there is support beyond the Tribal level for the efforts.
Rep. Don Young has backed efforts to get more representation of subsistence views inserted into wildlife management by introducing legislation to create the Ahtna project and supporting a change to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would add a subsistence representative to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Ahtna demonstration project
A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would give a new entity — the Ahtna Inter-Tribal Wildlife Commission — primacy over fish and wildlife management on Ahtna Inc. and Tribally-owned land in the region. It would also enable the commission to participate in co-management for federal land traditionally used by Ahtna shareholders.
Ahtna, an Alaska Native regional corporation, has 1.55 million acres from Cantwell to Chitina, with additional acreage not yet conveyed.
The State of Alaska has questioned certain components of that proposal, including federal authority to delegate wildlife management away from the state and to a private entity, but proponents of the proposal have said it would be in-line with other states, where Tribes are able to manage their own lands, and in-line with the intent of the ANCSA.
Roy Ewan, an Ahtna board member, was involved in the passage of ANCSA, and said it was clear at the time that the federal government intended for Alaska Natives to manage subsistence resources.
Ahtna Inc. shareholders and members of area Tribes have said the proposal developed out of a desire to simplify game regulations in the area and ensure that local, subsistence needs are met.
“All we want is meat on the table, but right now you have to be a trophy hunter to get anything,” said Nick Jackson, a shareholder.
Jackson and others have worked for decades to try and develop hunting regulations that support local needs, both through the state Board of Game process and in conjunction with federal managers. Ultimately, however, those needs are still not being met.
Some years, families cannot hunt in their traditional spots because they are crowded out by hunters from other regions, said Eleanor Dementi, of Cantwell, who is vice chair of Ahtna’s board.
The push has widespread support in the region, according to Ahtna President Michelle Anderson.
“This is a need that has brought all of us together,” Anderson said.
Karen Linnell, chair of the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Conservation District, said that subsistence is not just about feeding families, although that’s a big part of the push. It’s also a way of maintaining cultural values and staying connected to the land, she said.
Many of the details of the Ahtna project still must be worked out, and it’s unlikely that the necessary legislation will pass before the elections. For now, various stakeholders are working on drafts of the bill.
“I think eventually, it will pass, something similar to what we’re proposing,” Ewan said.
If the legislation passes and the commission works, it could be a model for management in other parts of the state, Ahtna representatives have said.
The Copper River Ahtna Intertribal Resource Conservation District could eventually fall under the new intertribal commission’s authority. While much of the proposed management structure has yet to be developed, the resource conservation district is already getting involved in area management.
Linnell said that the conservation district is working on an inventory of lands, and eventually wants to do a moose habitat improvement project. Those efforts are helping to build area Tribes technical know-how, and build capacity for future management, she said.
Yukon-Kuskokwim fisheries commission
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, the Association of Village Council Presidents, or AVCP, is developing a steering committee for a Tribal co-management group.
AVCP President Myron Naneng said that once the steering committee is established, it will help direct future work. But the end goal is to get villages directly involved in fisheries management.
If such a commission had been in place this summer, Naneng said he thinks that everyone involved in the fisheries would have been more willing to work together.
The desire for the commission project has developed as fishery restrictions have increased in recent years, and is also a response to the 2012 citations of Kuskokwim River fishermen for violating king salmon closures.
It’s also a response to the current management structure, which Naneng said can be difficult to navigate — and a response to unpopular management decisions.
Naneng said that regulations in that region are particularly confusing, because state and federal jurisdiction overlap. This year, the federal managers exercised their authority on the Kuskokwim; in the past, the state has led management efforts. There’s a wildlife refuge on the Yukon River, too, which results in a similar “hop scotch” of management, he said.
For the first time this year, Tribal governments passed resolutions for self-imposed moratorium on chinooks to help restore salmon stocks. But they want to be able to affect more than just their own behavior, Naneng said.
Many of the details surrounding a fisheries commission have yet to be worked out — funding, for instance, is unknown — but Naneng said that it would likely need to address all fish, not just king salmon.
“We’ve got to be concerned about all of them,” he said.
Naneng said that migratory bird management represents a successful use of co-management.
“It was a joint effort of working together with sports hunters down in California, Oregon and Washington that increased those numbers,” Naneng said.
He also pointed toward a moose hunting moratorium on the lower Kuskokwim that villages voluntarily extended, which helped improve moose populations in the region.
“Based on these successes, I think that it would be imperative for the State of Alaska and the federal government to try and increase the chinook salmon population both on the Kuskokwim and the Yukon.”
Campbell said that how a Tribal fisheries commission would affect management will depend on the commission’s structure.
“Management in that region could benefit from enhancing the mechanisms available for lower, mid, and upriver users to come together, understand each other’s needs and perspectives, and provide the managers with consolidated feedback that represents the consensus of affected users,” she wrote.
“Fisheries in that region could also benefit from a mechanism to further involves constituents in research, outreach, education, and capacity building. However, if the structure attempted to affect the ability of the State of Alaska to exercise our constitutional mandate to manage fish and wildlife resources for sustainability and common use, it could create a conflict and additional complexity.”