Feds plan limited legalization of subsistence bird hunting

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Forty years ago, 138 men, women and children carrying 138 ducks went to a federal game warden in Barrow and asked to be arrested. Their crime: subsistence hunting.

It was May 1961, and a local duck hunter had been arrested after going out to get fresh meat after the long winter. The others turned themselves in to protest federal laws drawn up thousands of miles away that ignored the reality of Natives' subsistence lifestyle, recalled Sadie Brower Neokok, the town magistrate at the time.

''They made criminals of us, you know, by changing rules and regulations which our people never knew existed,'' said Neokok, 87. ''We were not criminals.''

News of the Barrow ''duck-in'' tore through rural Alaska. It contributed to a political and social upheaval in the 1960s and was a galvanizing event for young Alaska Native leaders, some of whom went on to press for land claims, subsistence rights and tribal sovereignty.

The incident also spurred changes in Washington, D.C., though at a glacial pace.

But this week, after decades of hearings, proposals, regulations, lawsuits and treaties, the Department of the Interior has proposed to legalize, for the first time since 1916, spring and summer subsistence bird hunting for rural Alaskans.

The publication of proposed regulations in the Federal Register won't be an earthshaking event in the Bush, because the hunting regulations were enforced only sporadically, said Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents and a longtime member of migratory bird committees and work groups.

''But at least hunters won't have to look over their shoulder like they always have,'' he said.

More than 100 species of migratory birds return to Alaska every year. Favorites vary from region to region, Naneng said, and birds that may be available on the coast are not necessarily found on the tundra or farther north. White-front and cackling Canada geese, pintail ducks and brants are popular with hunters, while gull eggs are favored by many gatherers.

Though the birds spend summers in Alaska, they are hunted throughout their range, and in the early 1900s some species were near extinction. In 1916, the U.S. Congress and the Canadian government passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which limited hunting seasons to Sept. 1-March 10. Mexico eventually signed on, as did Japan and the former Soviet Union.

For most North Americans, fall and winter offered hunting opportunity. In much of Arctic Alaska, no hunting from March to September meant no hunting, period. The birds don't arrive until May or June and often are gone by Labor Day.

For almost 50 years the regulations went unnoticed, and for good reason, according to Anchorage attorney Don Mitchell.

''Nobody ever intended any of this regulatory regime to apply to Alaska Native subsistence hunting.''

That changed in 1960, Mitchell said. In his book ''Take My Land, Take My Life,'' he asserts that statehood put many federal game wardens out of work.

''So they decided to make some by stopping Native hunters from violating a treaty that most had never heard of.''

Rural hunters reacted by shooting at wardens on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Mitchell said. The Barrow duck-in occurred the next spring.

Those events and pressure from Alaska's congressional delegation pushed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service toward a different approach, said Doug Alcorn, the agency's assistant regional director for migratory birds. Using prosecutorial discretion, he said, wardens would ignore some regulations and enforce others.

''There were certain things we were willing to go to the mat on,'' he said, such as protecting endangered species and stopping wanton waste. ''Others, by the very nature of law, geography and our business, were not practical to enforce.''

That left subsistence hunters free to shoot most bird species and gather eggs during Alaska's spring and summer. But it also put the agency in legal limbo, prompting legislative attempts to approve the subsistence harvest and at least one lawsuit by sport hunters.

Getting out of that quagmire required treaty amendments with four countries, ratification by the U.S. Senate and nearly seven years of constructing a new bureaucracy, Alcorn said. The Alaska Migratory Bird Co-management Council was formed to represent subsistence hunters and state and federal agencies. Together they offer management advice to the Department of the Interior, much like the flyway councils in the Lower 48.

After a public comment period, the final regulations should be approved by late April, Alcorn said.

The new rules will apply only to residents of Western and Arctic Alaska, from Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula up the coast to the North Slope. A handful of species such as spectacled and Steller's eiders remain closed to hunting or egg gathering, and others are limited to certain areas.

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