How 8 Unelected Officials Control Hunting on Millions of Acres of Public Land

How 8 Unelected Officials Control Hunting on Millions of Acres of Public Land

Many hunters dream of traveling to Alaska, but opportunities to do so are coming under fire from a federal board that controls hunting on federal public land in our 49th state. Alaska’s Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) regulates hunting on federal public lands in the state, above and beyond the state wildlife agency, which is unlike every other state in the nation.

In the last few years, we’ve seen the FSB take a more aggressive approach to restrict non-local users from hunting in a certain place. Sometimes people from other rural areas of Alaska could come in and hunt there, but only those who are federally qualified subsistence users. It’s messy, and it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but it’s important for anyone looking to hunt some of the last intact ecosystems on the continent to understand.

The future of hunting in Alaska is at stake, so it’s worth considering how we got here in the first place and where we need to go in the future.

What’s the Problem?

This isn’t the first time MeatEater has covered issues with this board, and like most things, you only hear about them when something is going wrong. Lately, the FSB has been closing huge swaths of federal public lands to anyone who is not a federally qualified subsistence user.

An important thing to remember here is that the state and federal governments define qualified subsistence users differently. The federal definition of subsistence user is much narrower than the states and only includes rural Alaskans (and no, not everywhere in Alaska is considered rural).

The FSB is made up of the regional directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, and three citizens appointed by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, two of whom must represent rural subsistence users and one Federal Subsistence Board chair. They oversee the Federal Subsistence Management Program, which grants these federally qualified subsistence users certain rights and privileges above and beyond state-issued hunting or fishing licenses.

The problems began in force in 2021 when the FSB acted to close several million acres of federal public land to outside caribou and moose hunting. And just earlier this year, the board closed several million more in the Brooks Range to Dall Sheep hunting. Many hunters were quick to note that these decisions weren’t made over biological concerns and to express their frustrations with the FSB.

“The resource is always our first concern. However, the recent illegitimate closures by the Federal Subsistence Board of two Dall sheep hunting areas in Alaska have had a very negative effect on numerous sheep hunters and outfitters,”  President of the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, Kevin Kehoe, said. “These public lands were closed to the public without sufficient supporting data and in direct contravention to several agreements like ANILCA with the State of Alaska. A clear case of Federal overreach.”

To add insult to injury, 22 of the 24 latest public comments to the FSB were against this closure. Many people have made their voices heard on this. However, under the current rules, ten Regional Advisory Councils made up of local residents are the only bodies that the FSB is required to listen to.

These closures impact hunting by anyone who isn’t a “federally qualified subsistence user,” but they aren’t the only Alaskans who rely on wild protein.

“A lot of folks forget that Alaskans fill their freezers in several different ways, and just because your license doesn’t say ‘subsistence’ next to it doesn’t mean that you’re not relying on that protein to get through the next year,” Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Ben Mulligan, said.

How Did We Get Here?

Natural resource law can be complicated. Laws and policies in the West are very different from those east of the Mississippi. But Alaska is a whole different ballgame. When a territory becomes a state, there are a whole bunch of different things that need to be decided when it comes to land and natural resource management.

Who gets to hunt or fish where is fairly low on that list, but it still makes the docket. In Alaska, many of those decisions were made in the writing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA; “AN-ill-cuh”), a piece of legislation that Congress passed in 1980 to address how federal lands would be managed in that state.

When Congress passed that law, they decided that qualified subsistence users would be treated differently than others. This was for a good, thoughtful reason—Congress wanted to ensure the preservation of rural Alaska's culture and tradition into the future. But how the agencies should go about doing this was never laid out in statute, nor was the FSB.

Some folks, including those at the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska (OHFA), believe that the FSB is no longer preserving that culture or tradition. And that it is actually acting at the expense of all hunters.

“The federal board wasn't intended to run this long,” President of OHFA, Jennifer Yuhas, said. “It wasn't even contained in ANILCA but was developed later. The OHFA is committed to conservation management and preserving traditions. These are the same principles that drove the congressional intent behind the passage of ANILCA. But the federal program has abandoned these values with arbitrary decisions that don't actually support rural residents. In reality, it's the state program that is managed for conservation and the continuance of culture. We are the only state with an overlay of dual management like this. It's the state program that provides for college students and families living on the road system to return home to help their elders hunt and fish for food security and grandchildren to learn their culture.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

With all these problems, some say it might be time to reform or replace the FSB—a question that Congress, the Department of Interior, or the Supreme Court could address.

“The program has been allowed to act outside its authority and outlived its benefit,” Yuhas said. “Until we can get back to one management program, bureaucracy will continue to gobble the funds we could be using for research and conservation management to benefit all users. We don't need a Constitutional Convention to change this, but we need intervention and direct user input that is transparent and adheres to rulemaking under the public trust authority."

How this situation moves forward largely depends on whether or not the FSB is acting within their authority under the law, a question that the State of Alaska has asked federal courts to help answer.

“We’re seeing a concerted effort to shut hunters out from areas of Alaska for reasons the state believes are not valid under the provisions of Title 8 of ANILCA,” Mulligan said. “We’ve seen the FSB close areas where there are no conservation concerns for game populations or have any information to confirm continued subsistence uses are being impacted. What we are hearing is that areas should be closed more so for the quality of the [subsistence] hunt than any actual impacts by hunters coming from the more urban areas of Alaska.”

Additionally, the impacts of this program are affecting the state’s fish and wildlife management strategies.

“The decisions made by the FSB are slowly but surely eroding the ability of the state to manage fish and wildlife,” Mulligan said. “Which is why we had no choice but to pursue litigation to gain clarity on the true authority of that body under Title 8 of ANILCA. The state believes that body has overstepped their statutory authority and needs to be reined in.”

The next step is for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a ruling.

For now, we’ll all have to manage within an overlapping regulation scheme, meaning anyone looking to hunt in Alaska needs to read up on the rules and regs and make our voices heard where these decisions happen. That means being present at resource advisory council meetings for concerned Alaskans and supporting the organizations working to rectify the issues here in an amicable way for everyone trying to hunt these special places.

MeatEater founder Steven Rinella spoke to this issue in an article last year, and what he said still rings true today.

"My biases on this issue are obvious: I'm a non-resident who owns a hunting and fishing shack in Alaska, and I spend a month or so every year bouncing around the state in pursuit of game,” Steve said. “So, naturally, I'm gonna get alarmed by an action that shuts out the overwhelming majority of American hunters—both non-resident and resident—from millions of acres of our federally managed public land. But this issue goes behind what's good or bad for me, personally. It touches on a concerning trend in wildlife management, where hunters are excluded from exploiting renewable resources due to social concerns, even in cases where there's no legitimate concern for the sustainability of that resource."

Looking to the future of hunting in Alaska, something needs to give. It’s certainly possible that the FSB in its current form or composition could be part of that solution. However, wholesale change may be the only way to ensure wildlife, tradition, and culture are conserved long into the future.

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