The importance of subsistence in Alaska was reinforced in a September congressional hearing, but so were the challenges in managing fish and game populations with that in mind.
The U.S. Senate Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing Sept. 19 regarding wildlife management authority in Alaska under the Alaska National Interest Lands Act, or ANILCA and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA.
The hearing was the first time ANILCA has been back up for congressional discussion since it passed in 1980, and participants called on lawmakers to reopen it and make certain changes to protect subsistence rights in Alaska, asserting that while the federal government promised to do so, that promise has not been fulfilled.
Participants in the nearly three-hour hearing included state and federal managers, representatives from Alaska Native corporations and tribal organizations, and a specialist in Native American law.
The interplay between state and federal management, regulations and definitions is complex. The state constitution gives all Alaskans equal access to resources, although certain statues prioritize subsistence in times when there is a concern about meeting all needs.
Federal law offers up a subsistence priority for rural residents, which is generally in place on federal lands, although additional statutes regulate marine mammals, migratory birds and certain other species individually.
Declining king salmon runs, habitat changes for certain populations and game concerns have all made management increasingly difficult.
Rosita Worl, who is president of Sealaska Heritage Institute and chairs the Alaska Federation of Natives subsistence committee, asserted that subsistence rights are the mainstay of food security in villages statewide.
Bethel Native Corp.’s Ana Hoffman shared several recent experiences with subsistence hunting and gathering, and talked about how those experiences and efforts are woven into the culture in rural Alaska.
She also highlighted the importance of protecting those opportunities into the future.
“As I walked across the tundra, I looked back and saw them, three boys ages 10, 11, and 12 sitting at the edge of a lake in the middle of southwestern Alaska waiting for the migratory birds to land,” Hoffman said. “It is their rights we all aim to protect.”
Much of the testimony focused on what the protections should be.
Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac asked for additional opportunities for Alaska Native groups to engage in co-management with federal and state partners, including the use of two such demonstration projects.
Isaac’s proposal would enable fisheries co-management with tribal organizations on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
Isaac and others pointed to the king salmon disasters on the Yukon and Kuskokwim as evidence of subsistence management failures, and a source of much concern for Alaskans.
The Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents more than 50 Western Alaska villages, also supported the proposals Isaac brought forward.
Isaac’s second project was for wildlife management on Ahtna land, in Southcentral.
Worl, on behalf of AFN, also asked Congress to direct implementation of 2010 action items recommended in a review of the federal program, and supported the projects and co-management in general.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Craig Fleener offered the state’s perspective, including instances where state management is working, and the process for making changes to accommodate subsistence users when it appears that their needs are not being met.
Fleener’s recommendations focused on more active management for federal lands, eliminating federal management where it merely duplicated state efforts, funding more research, and federal use of the state’s subsistence data.
The September hearing was the first heard about either ANCSA or ANILCA since they were signed into law, and followed a series of public meetings held in the state.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement that the hearing and meetings were part of an effort to address some of the issues in fish and game management.
“I made a commitment last year to hear out all sides on this issue and to create a forum where we could openly, and respectfully, discuss subsistence and the state and federal roles in managing fish and game within Alaska’s borders,” Murkowski said.
Robert Anderson, a law professor, testified that the law has not lived up to its promise, but that statutory authority to fix its failings still exists, and that Congress could assert a Native preference in doing so.
The Federal Subsistence Board is also reviewing the rural determination process. A final report is not due until 2014.
Gene Peltola, from the Office of Subsistence Management said the review process is looking at how demographic, infrastructure and economic changes may or may not be incorporated into the rural statuses.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.