Alaska tribes and rural hunters have long complained that the dual federal-state game management system is hard to live by and doesn’t give subsistence users their due. Friday, Ahtna Inc., the smallest of Alaska’s Regional Native Corporations, presented a proposal for co-management of game to a U.S. House panel.
Unlike most of rural Alaska, the eight villages of the Ahtna Region are on the road system. Ahtna President Michelle Anderson told a congressional panel today that every season, local hunters have to contend with more and more hunters who drive in from elsewhere. She said it’s not just a matter of food but also cultural erosion.
“It’s a shame that this last season for instance, you know, many of our hunters who have always gotten a moose couldn’t compete with everyone else,” Anderson testified at the House Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee. “A lot of our elders have empty freezers this winter. That means, too, that our children are not being raised on our traditional foods.”
Questions about how to divvy fish and game to favor subsistence users have plagued the state since the 1970s. Anderson says Ahtna has spent millions to protect their members’ hunting rights and to control trespass on corporate land. They say they need co-management, a real seat at the table, with state and federal managers.
“To be honest, we would be taken more seriously. Right now we’re just a voice complaining about these people coming on to our lands.”
The proposal would authorize Ahtna and area tribes to jointly manage wildlife on Native corporation lands. It would also establish co-management on what Ahtna says is its traditional hunting grounds. That territory includes state and federal land, stretching from Cantwell to beyond McCarthy. In state Board of Game terms, it’s mostly regions 11 and 13, though the governor would have to “opt in” for co-management to affect state land.
Tara Sweeney, co-chair of Alaska Federation of Natives, testified the proposal will help preserve the subsistence rights of non-Natives living in rural Alaska, too. Sweeney acknowledges not everyone will see it that way.
“The issue of food security for Alaska Natives has always been a controversial issue, and we’re here to stand behind the people of the Ahtna Region. It’s going to impact a very small portion of the state.”
She and Anderson were the only witnesses at the House Indian Affairs Subcommittee today. The head of the Alaska state office in Washington, Kip Knudson, says the state will submit a response by March 24, but the proposal is very complex.
“The bill is covering issues that have been fought about and debated for 40 years, so we’ll have to cover quite a bit of ground in our comments, I suspect,” he said.
The subcommittee chairman, Alaska Congressman Don Young, said at the end of the hearing he intends to pursue this, and he sees rough waters ahead.
“Thank you, and I will tell you, this is something I believe in or I wouldn’t do it, and it’s at great jeopardy that I do this. But if I don’t do this, why am I here?”
Young says he’s listening to all sides and aims to leave a legacy of increased opportunities for subsistence, as well as sport hunting and participation in what he called “the great Alaska experience.”