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Department of Fish and Game Wants to Repeal Caribou Closure for Non-Local Hunters

A male caribou runs near Kiwalik, Alaska. Photo: Jim Dau.

NOME, Alaska — The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is trying to repeal a controversial decision on caribou hunting in the Northwest Arctic. Last month, the Federal Subsistence Board voted to close thousands of acres of public lands to all but local hunters, citing the caribou herd’s declining population and the need to protect subsistence.

But in a letter sent Wednesday, Fish and Game asked the board to reconsider the yearlong closure, arguing it would actually hurt subsistence hunters without helping the herd.

Lem Butler is the Assistant Director for Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation. He said state officials were surprised at the closure because the Northwest Arctic Caribou Herd is showing signs of improvement.

“It’s been declining, but recent evidence indicates that it’s beginning to stabilize,” he said. “We’ve seen better adult survival rates and better calf recruitment. Our models are predicting that the population is again doing well.”

On top of that, Butler said outside hunters account for just five percent of the total harvest, which means kicking them off federal lands wouldn’t do much to conserve the herd. Instead, he said the closure would drive more hunters onto state lands and cause overcrowding.

“We think that it’s going to increase user conflicts for locals, particularly along the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers,” he said. “A lot of the non-locals will now be forced to hunt in those areas as well, so people will be competing for caribou and interacting on the river in a way that probably isn’t going to help the situation.”

Butler said the state wants to work with local communities and the federal board to cut down on existing conflict between local and outside hunters while ensuring the herd can provide for subsistence users in the long term.

That’s why managers have introduced new bag limits and restrictions on the length of the caribou season — measures that Butler calls less extreme than a closure.

However, the closure is not eligible for reconsideration because it was made by a temporary special action outside of the typical regulation cycle. That’s according to Carl Johnson with the Office of Subsistence Management. He said Fish and Game would have to propose a new special action — and get the board to approve it — in order to reverse the decision.

Butler said the state is willing to propose a special action, but he’s not sure it would reopen federal lands in time for caribou season.

“For now, we’re advising hunters to prepare for a federal land closure in the fall,” he said. “I think the process may be slow, and it’s difficult to say whether or not we’ll have any satisfaction in our request before the hunting season begins.”

If the decision isn’t overturned, the yearlong closure will go into effect on July 1.