Alaska and a number of other states have joined Arizona in a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal on a ruling that affects the number of permits allotted to nonresident hunters of bull elk and antlered deer in that state.
Alaska is party to this move for good reason. As a state that pulls the majority of its wildlife conservation funding from nonresident hunters who enter the state subject to numerous conditions and in some instances on a limited or restricted basis, Alaska should pay heed to these proceedings.
An Arizona Game & Fish Department regulation limits nonresidents to 10 percent of hunting tags allotted annually. But in August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision upholding that rule. Three 9th Circuit judges found the Constitution's Commerce Clause applies, and that the caps are ''a severe form of discrimination in the allocation of government benefits.''
From the court documents, it appears the plaintiffs relied on an argument many hunters would find distasteful; that the wildlife in question was ''commerce'' at least in part because the nonedible parts of those animals (antlers, ivories, hides) are marketable. The idea that sport hunters seek greater opportunity to land limited elk and deer hunting permits -- particularly in prime areas known to yield record-book game -- so they can go about selling the nonedible portions of those animals is simply ludicrous. Regardless, the argument was enough to help convince the judges to apply the dormant Commerce Clause.
George Taulman of USO Outfitters, a guide who says ''the U.S. is my backyard'' and is serving as a point person and accepting donations to help fight the case, said in a phone conversation Friday that the case deals only with the restrictive quotas. He complained that western states have become unreasonably restrictive, in some cases to the exclusion of all but resident hunters. ''It's just not a fair system,'' he said. ''In many cases it's federal game on federal land that belongs to everyone, so why is it reserved strictly for residents?''
Taulman doubted that Alaska would ever become a target for such a suit. ''You guys are just a mess up there, with the subsistence and everything, nobody would want to spend the money.''
Never say never. A variety of nonresident restrictions have been challenged in the courts. This time the attorneys found a creative angle.
When Arizona argued that most states have some type of nonresident hunting restrictions for sought-after species, the appeals court responded that accepting that rationale would mean ''Montana could then reserve 90 percent of its trout fishing, California 90 percent of its beach access, Colorado 90 percent of its back-country skiing ...''
What does this kind of rationale from the courts mean for nonresident moose hunting restrictions on the Koyukuk River or limited nonresident permits for Kodiak brown bear? Alaska also requires that nonresidents be commercially guided or accompanied by a blood relative if they seek certain big game species. These are de facto restrictions because of the financial burden or simply because the number of guides in some areas is limited. A Fairbanks hunter can drive to road-accessible portions of the mountains and hunt Dall sheep by virtue of a free tag and a $25 resident hunting license. Someone from Outside needs a $425 tag, an $85 license and must be accompanied by an Alaskan relative or hire a guide for what is sure to be
several thousand dollars.
According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures, the state's sales of resident hunting licenses and tags to 87,311 hunters for 2001 netted roughly $1.8 million, while sales of licenses and tags to 13,498 nonresident hunters netted roughly $5.8 million.
If the nation's courts begin to err to the favor of equal access for all hunters to all areas, Alaska could indeed have a great deal at stake.
-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Jan. 4
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