Most Americans Just Lost Millions of Acres of Hunting Access

Most Americans Just Lost Millions of Acres of Hunting Access

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

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

Members of the Northwest Arctic Regional Advisory Council submitted this controversial proposal in 2021 at 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 hunters from points across the nation who have hunted there or hoped to do so someday.

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

“The Council is very concerned about the late migration of caribou through Unit 23 because local people rely upon caribou to meet their subsistence needs,” the proposal states. “The Council is particularly concerned about the effect transporters and non-local hunters are having on the migration of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and believe that transporter activity in Units 23 and 26A may be delaying caribou migration. The Council hopes this request would reduce aircraft traffic, creating an easier path for migrating caribou. The Council also supports closing moose hunting to non-Federally qualified users because of declining moose populations.”

The Federal Subsistence Board is comprised of members from each subsistence region in Alaska as well as representatives from each relevant federal land management agency, including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Many observers cite this action as yet another example of federal overreach into wildlife management in the Last Frontier. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game fought aggressively against the special action, contending that it interferes with their mandate to manage hunting and wildlife within their borders.

ADFG estimates the average annual harvest of Western Arctic Herd caribou was around 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 the Federal Subsistence Board took to close such a wide swatch of federal public lands in Northwest Alaska to non-federally qualified users (non-locals),” Ben Mulligan, deputy commissioner of ADFG, told MeatEater. “The provisions under 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 request met those stipulations. The harvestable surplus of caribou is still high enough to accommodate the amount reasonably necessary for subsistence for locals and non-locals alike, and the claim that non-locals are causing the change in migration of the WAH was shaky at best. The one aspect of this that is most disheartening is the dismissal of the hundreds of people who called and wrote in to oppose this closure.”

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

This closure has, however, united factious conservation and hunting groups across the country, with opposition coming across the spectrum from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to Safari Club International.

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

The unilateral and closed-door nature of the decision greatly frustrated those seeking mutually agreeable 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 issues that are based in sound science,” AK BHA stated.

Durable and effective wildlife management measures come from consensus and compromise—not locking out specific user groups, MeatEater’s Director of Conservation Ryan Callaghan said.

"There are many management options that lie between allowing non-subsistence hunters to hunt and not. Many of which, like a reduced or limited draw, hunters could have supported. However, the closing of millions of acres is lazy management and not supportable,” Callaghan said.

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