ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Proposed changes to the Nelchina caribou hunt topped the agenda as the Alaska Board of Game opened a 10-day meeting Friday in Anchorage.
The Nelchina herd is the state's most accessible caribou herd, reachable from the Glenn, Richardson and Denali highways. It's popular with hunters from Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys.
Thousands of hunters flock to the Nelchina Basin northeast of Anchorage each year. Frequently easy to reach and easy to hunt in the open tundra, the herd is immensely popular with hunters.
But a decline in the herd and in the number of permits issued has led to battles over who gets to hunt.
The herd once numbered 50,000 animals but has declined to about 30,000. Biologists blame the decline on a combination of harsh winters, increasing numbers of bears and wolves, and the lingering effects of overgrazing from when the herd was large.
As the herd has declined, the state has sharply reduced the number of hunting permits -- from 10,000 three years ago to about 2,000 last year.
The Nelchina permits are awarded on a point system that considers how long a person has lived in Alaska, how long they've hunted in the Nelchina area and, in effect, where they live. Fish and Game scores the applications and then doles out permits.
As the number of permits has declined, more hunters have expressed discontent with the permit system. Last year, a Girdwood man who didn't get a Nelchina permit filed a lawsuit, claiming the system violates the state constitution.
Steve Kemper, 33, of Chugiak has never won a permit for the Nelchina caribou hunt. Kemper thinks the current system of point-scored permits gives too much priority to long-time hunters and excludes younger hunters like him.
''It's too much of a 'good ole boy' system,'' Kemper said. ''I'd like to at least have a chance at getting a permit.''
Kemper has proposed that the board set aside half the permits for a random drawing.
But some hunters say the problem is more basic -- not enough caribou.
''Anytime there's a limited resource, people aren't going to be happy,'' said Don Horrell of Tazlina who has hunted Nelchina caribou for years and serves as chairman of the Copper Basin Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
Horrell thinks the state could do a better job sharing the opportunity. He supports a proposal to limit permits to one per household. The current limit is three per household.
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