Feedback mixed on opening up Nushagak hunt

Feb 18, 2016

Stakeholders weigh in on ways to cull the Nushagak Peninsula Caribou herd, but getting help from other Alaskans the most contentious idea.

Credit Courtesy of Fish & Wildlife

As stakeholders and managers are looking for ways to increase the harvest of Nushagak Peninsula caribou, the state’s Federal Subsistence Board is considering a handful of changes for the spring hunt.

Togiak National Wildlife Refuge managers say the Nushagak Peninsula caribou herd has grown well beyond what’s considered a sustainable level: there are about 1,400 animals, instead of the ideal size closer to 700-900. At a public meeting in Dillingham on Tuesday night, Refuge Biologist Pat Walsh said that it's an emergency-high level.

“They’re almost certain to damage the habitat there just like on Hagemeister Island, where it won’t support caribou. And then, for as long as time is meaningful to management, we will not have a subsistence resource there," Walsh said.

Right now, there are four options on the table for culling the herd this spring: raise the limit for each hunter, extend the season to April 15, allow same-day airborne hunting, and allow all Alaskans to participate in the hunt.

Those would just be for the immediate future; fall and longer-term solutions will be considered later on. A public hearing on those last two ideas was held Tuesday night, with participants attending in Dillingham and calling-in from other Bristol Bay communities.

Currently, hunting is limited to residents of Dillingham, Aleknagik, Togiak, Twin Hills, Manokotak, Clark’s Point and Ekuk. Opening the hunt to all Alaskans is the most contentious of the ideas, and drew much of the meeting’s attention.

Gayla Hoseth said Bristol Bay Native Association and the Curyung Tribal Council strongly oppose that idea, and in her personal testimony, she talked about a concern of losing local control.

“However, we are in favor of expanding this to Bristol Bay communities to come and harvest the caribou,” she said.

But there’s not an easy way to expand to additional Bay communities, other than opening it up statewide.

Frank Woods said that while he’d prefer to keep caribou for Bay residents, he also doesn’t want to see the whole herd lost because the six communities can’t harvest enough.

“We don’t have the options," Woods said. "If the calving population drops 300, we’re going to be at 1,700-1,800 caribou," he said. "Gonna be a bigger mess than we started last year. If we had a plan for Togiak to harvest 200, Manokotak 200 and Dillingham 100, whatever it looked like, and actually set up charters to go down there and harvest them numbers, I would feel a lot more comfortable keeping it local for Bristol Bay. But we don’t.”

Walsh said that’s probably the mindset needed to protect future subsistence opportunities.

“What I’m afraid, is if we as a local group don’t promote this idea now, and that is to open this hunt up to the state under the terms that we prescribe, that it’s gonna happen under terms somebody else is gonna prescribe.”

Testimony at the meeting generally supported allowing same-day airborne, or hunting and flying on the same day, for the rest of the spring hunt.

Now it’s up to the federal subsistence board to make a decision on all four action requests for spring. That’s expected in the next week or two.

Later this spring, the federal subsistence board will consider allowing same-day airborne hunting permanently, and may also consider a couple more changes for next season only: increasing the bag limit to five caribou, and opening the hunt to all Alaskans next season, as long as there are at least 900 caribou.