ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Three Western Alaska hunters have been charged with illegal moose hunting in a case that has heightened tensions in a region already anxious over the sensitive issues of tribal sovereignty, subsistence rights and moose management.
On Aug. 22, 50 to 100 residents of Tuntutuliak, a village of 370 near the mouth of Kuskokwim Bay, barred an Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection officer and two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees from entering their village. The officers, who were there to investigate allegations of moose poaching and to cite one hunter, were told they weren't welcome if they planned to enforce state and federal subsistence hunting regulations, a Tuntutuliak spokesman said.
The standoff was defused several days later when state troopers, including one fluent in Yup'ik, entered the village without incident, talked to tribal officers and eventually cited the suspect.
The Tuntutuliak incident began in mid-August with several anonymous phone calls from the village to the Bethel troopers office that moose had been poached near the village on the lower Kuskokwim River.
Wildlife trooper Matthew Dobson investigated the claims, and on Aug. 21 he flew to Tuntutuliak to serve complaints on residents John A. Daniel, 24, and John Pavila, 57. Each was charged with taking a cow moose out of season. The state moose season on the lower Kuskokwim runs Sept. 1-30 and is for bulls only.
The following day, Dobson returned to Tuntutuliak to continue his investigation and to serve a third suspect. He was joined by two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees. They were met on the beach by the Tuntutuliak crowd, Dobson said.
''Nobody was hostile toward me. It was a very passive deal,'' he said. But village officials handed them a notice from the Tuntutuliak Tribal Court forbidding the officers from entering the village if they were enforcing subsistence laws.
The officers accepted the message but said they would be back.
Dobson said the confrontation was unexpected. After working out of Bethel for two years, he said, ''it's the first time I've had anything like that.''
On Aug. 26, trooper Sgt. Charles Bartolini and trooper Jerry Evan flew back to the village to meet with tribal officials. Bartolini said the Bethel trooper post has a good working relationship with villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Evan lives in nearby Napaskiak and speaks Yup'ik.
Bartolini said the tribe's reaction to the first two citations was based on what the hunters had told village residents.
''What was related by individuals to the community and what really happened were two different things,'' he said.
Evan's translations helped make the facts clear, he added.
Evan played down his role, saying he knew the village and villagers knew him.
''They pretty much know where I stand. I think they were a little more at ease'' when he helped explain the troopers' side of things, he said.
Afterward, they cited Tuntutuliak resident James Jimmie, 58, for unlawful possession and transportation of an illegally taken moose.
Moose hunting is a sensitive topic throughout the lower Kuskokwim region, in part because there are so few of the animals, said Department of Fish and Game biologist Phillip Perry. Moose started moving into the area only in the past century, he said, probably as habitat improved. A recent survey found fewer than 100 animals in the 80 or 90 miles of river from Bethel to Kalskag.
A working group of biologists and moose hunters formed recently to educate area residents on the problem of poaching. They have visited several Kuskokwim villages, though not Tuntutuliak, because it's so far down the river that few moose are believed to live there, Perry said.
One outcome of the Aug. 26 meeting between troopers and Tuntutuliak Tribal Council members was a plan to bring biologists and enforcement officials to the village to discuss the moose-rebuilding effort. A meeting is set for October, said council vice president Adolph Lupie.
He hopes the education goes both ways.
''This village is traditionally a subsistence community, and we've been hunting any game throughout any kind of season. It's been the practice ever since I grew up,'' he said. Villagers understand there are state and federal regulations, he added, ''but we do have traditional laws here in the village.''
Tuntutuliak's stand is likely to be applauded by some villages but opposed by others, said Allen Joseph, acting president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents Alaska Natives in the lower Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
''I know that certain tribes believe they have rights to hunting and fishing without limits, but that's a pretty rare case,'' Joseph said. ''There's going to be a lot of tribes that won't approve of what Tuntutuliak did.''
Trooper Dobson said he understands the view of subsistence hunters and tries to keep it in mind while investigating poaching incidents. ''You have to look at it from both ways,'' he said. ''They're just trying to put food on the table. It's not Palmer or Kenai,'' where jobs are available and grocery stores are open all night. ''Unless you've been out there and lived or worked in these villages, it's tough to explain what it's like.''
The three hunters will be arraigned in Bethel on Thursday.
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