KOTZEBUE, Alaska — For the first time ever, hunters who live outside the Northwest Arctic will not be allowed to hunt caribou on federal lands. The Federal Subsistence Board has closed Game Management Unit 23 starting July 1 in an effort to conserve Alaska’s largest herd and protect subsistence.
But the yearlong ban has created some controversy and confusion surrounding the hunt. Just last week, the State of Alaska petitioned U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to intervene in the decision.
It’s breakfast, and Victor Karmun is having biscuits and gravy at one of his favorite spots in Kotzebue. With fall fast approaching, though, he said he has been thinking a lot lately about another favorite food.
“Caribou: One of the most used animals in the region,” he said. “Been controversial ever since I got back.”
Karmun’s originally from the village of Deering, but he has lived in Kotzebue since 1979. That’s when he returned to Alaska after serving in the military. That’s also when he started noticing the region was a little busier when he boated up the Noatak River each season to hunt caribou.
“All of a sudden, the transporters and outfitters found out about this region,” he said. “We’ve been really locking horns with them for about 20 years or better.”
Some locals say outside hunters are disrespectful, wasting meat or leaving trash at their camps. Others claim that outsiders have an unfair advantage because they can afford to fly and land near the herd, while local families pool their money for boat fuel and wait for caribou to cross the rivers.
No matter whom you talk to, though, Karmun said one thing is clear: It has gotten harder for people to fill their freezers each fall. The Northwest Arctic Caribou Herd has shrunk by half in the last 10 or 15 years, and the animals have stopped following many of their traditional migratory routes.
Outside hunters may not be to blame, but Karmun said taking them out of the equation for one year is certainly worth a try.
“Right now, we’ve got a little breathing room,” he said. “Maybe the village of Noatak will get a little reprieve and get some animals this fall. Who knows?”
But that attitude is frustrating for outside hunters — and the bush pilots and guides who rely on their business.
Jared Cummings owns Golden Eagle Outfitters, a transporter service that has operated out of Kotzebue for nearly 10 years. Since the closure was announced in April, he says the company has lost around $250,000, refunding money to caribou clients who had booked trips this season.
That’s a big chunk of his business, but Cummings said it’s not really about the money.
“It’s about what’s right or wrong,” he said. “These people are United States citizens. They want to come up here and shoot one caribou. They should be allowed to.”
Cummings points to population estimates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The state hasn’t finished a full caribou survey since 2013, but a recent rough estimate puts the herd at 206,000 animals.
That number would indicate the herd is stabilizing after years of decline. And if that’s true, Cummings said “conservation” may be masking the real motive behind the closure.
“It’s not biological at all, and I think everybody knows what that means,” he said.
Namely, prejudice against outside hunters — which some say is unfounded. According to guides and transporters, outside hunters don’t waste meat or mess up migration routes by flying in. Instead, they argue that outsiders donate extra meat to elders and that caribou are changing their own patterns in response to a changing climate.
So for many of those who work with outsiders, it really boils down to one thing.
“They resent people coming in with new Cabela’s camo on,” said Jake Jacobson. He has been a hunting guide since the 1970s, and now he splits his time between Kodiak and a camp north of Kotzebue.
“They just resent outsiders coming in that way, and I can understand that,” he said. “That’s territorialism, and I think that’s part of human nature. But that’s just something that if we live in a civil society, we have to accept.”
Jacobson said his business will take a big financial hit this season. He has lost six clients, who won’t make the trip if they can’t hunt caribou. But he said his main concern is that the closure will set a dangerous precedent for future restrictions.
“This is an unnecessary infringement of public access to a public resource on public lands,” he said.
The problem with that thinking is that the resource has a very different significance for local hunters than it does for outsiders. At least, that’s how Pete Schaeffer sees it.
“Caribou is still the mainstay of our diet, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer,” he said. “We have to be able to gather the animal and use it.”
Schaeffer is from Kotzebue, and he has hunted caribou since he was a teenager, primarily on the Kobuk and Selawik Rivers. Unlike outside hunters, he said most local families don’t have an easy grocery alternative if their hunts don’t pan out.
“When you go to a village where a bag of precooked chicken is upwards of $20 and then you go to Anchorage where it’s $4.99, you can better understand what I’m talking about,” he said.
So as caribou have gotten harder to hunt, regardless of the reason and how the herd may rebound, Schaeffer said the closure makes sense right now. He says hopefully, it’ll take some pressure off local hunters and give them a better chance at gathering a major diet staple.
“To [outside hunters], it’s a recreational need,” he said. “In some cases, they use the meat. But it inadvertently raises the question as to whether people who hunt for sport have just as much right as people who have a critical need for the meat.”
Back at breakfast, Victor Karmun said someday, he thinks locals and outsiders could coexist.
“If it was managed correctly, there are enough animals to go around,” he said. “I don’t know if that will ever happen.”
And until Fish and Game surveys the whole herd again, no one’s really sure that there are enough caribou. If the survey attempt this fall is successful, there’ll be a brand-new population estimate by December — something that could reinforce the need for closures and conservation or bring the complicated conversation right back to where it started.