Most Americans Just Lost Millions of Acres of Hunting Access

On March 30, the Federal Subsistence Board voted unanimously to approve Special Wildlife Action 21-01a, which will close millions of acres of public land in Northwest Alaska to caribou and moose hunting by most of the non-locals for at least the next two hunting seasons.

The effort was led by local subsistence hunters who believe outsider pressure has something to do with delayed caribou migrations and declining elk populations, despite scant scientific evidence. This goes against overwhelming opposition from hunters and conservation groups in Alaska and the country.

Members of the Northwest Arctic Regional Advisory Council introduced this controversial proposal in 2021 and it has been hotly debated ever since. Read MeatEater’s previous coverage of the situation here. Every public comment period and listening session has been dominated by angry point hunters from across the country who have hunted there or hoped to one day.

The advisory council did not end up closing the originally proposed 60 million acres. Instead, they are closing the Noatak National Preserve and all BLM land between the Kobuk and Noatak rivers for caribou hunting. All federal public lands in Unit 23 will close elk hunting by all non-federally qualified subsistence hunters.

“The Council is very concerned about the late migration of caribou through Unit 23 because the local population depends on caribou for their subsistence needs,” the proposal says. “The Council is particularly concerned about the effect that transporters and non-local hunters are having on the migration of the western Arctic caribou herd and believes that transporter activity in Units 23 and 26A may be delaying the migration of caribou. caribou. The Council hopes that this request will reduce aircraft traffic, creating an easier path for caribou migration. The Council also supports closing elk hunting to non-federally qualified users due to declining elk populations.”

The Federal Subsistence Board is made up of members from each subsistence region in Alaska, as well as representatives from each federal land management agency, including the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Many observers cite this action as yet another example of federal overreach in wildlife management in the Last Frontier. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game aggressively fought the special action, claiming it interferes with its mandate to control game and wildlife within its borders.

ADFG estimates that the average annual caribou harvest from the Western Arctic herd was about 12,000 animals between 2017 and 2019. Non-locals were responsible for about 64 of those caribou killed per year.

“We are disappointed in the action taken by the Federal Subsistence Board to close such a broad sample of federal public lands in northwest Alaska to non-federally qualified (non-local) users,” ADFG deputy commissioner Ben Mulligan told MeatEater. “The provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) are clear when the FSB can enact such a closure, and the state did not see how this application met those stipulations. The harvestable surplus of caribou is still high enough to accommodate the number reasonably needed for subsistence by locals and non-locals alike, and the claim that non-locals are causing the shift in WAH migration was, at best, of the cases, unstable. The only aspect of this that is more disheartening is the firing of the hundreds of people who have called and written to oppose this shutdown.”

The department previously promised a robust legal battle if the council took such action: “We are still assessing the impact of the action the FSB took yesterday afternoon and weighing our options,” Mulligan said.

However, this closure has united factional conservation and hunting groups across the country, with opposition from across the spectrum, from Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to Safari Club International.

“This closure is an extreme disappointment and goes beyond what the caribou management plan calls for, even at the current management level of ‘conservative decline.’ This closure will have no measurable effect on herd abundance and is highly unlikely to affect caribou migration,” the Alaska chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers said in a statement. “The problem of declining caribou numbers and changing migration patterns is not caused by non-local hunters, and this motion will do nothing to address the drivers of the decline and availability of the resource to users. of subsistence”.

The one-sided and closed-door nature of the decision greatly frustrated those seeking mutually acceptable solutions.

“We advocate for a more open public process that does not allow the Federal Subsistence Board to remain insulated from public comment and we will advocate for solutions to wildlife management problems that are based on sound science,” stated AK BHA.

Lasting and effective wildlife management measures come from consensus and compromise, without blocking specific user groups, said MeatEater Conservation Director Ryan Callaghan.

“There are many management options that lie between allowing non-subsistence hunters to hunt and not. Many of which, like a reduced or limited lottery, hunters could have supported. However, closing millions of acres it’s lazy and unbearable management, Callaghan said.