Opinion published by Fairbanks Daily News-Miner November 28, 2021

by Mark Richards

Alaska Hunters Face Challenges from Outside Interests

Over 100,000 hunting licenses are sold annually to Alaska resident hunters, and resident hunters bring in over a billion dollars annually to our economy, supporting local businesses across the state. Hunting opportunities are often a reason many choose to live and stay in the Last Frontier. Hunting is vital to putting food on our tables and a means to carrying on long held traditions passed down through generations, whether one lives rural or urban.

The Alaska Board of Game (BOG) is a seven-member panel with members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, and controls all aspects of wildlife management, hunting seasons, bag limits and allocations. Our hunting opportunities, and our children’s and grandchildren’s future hunting opportunities, are in the hands of the BOG.

According to statute (AS 16.05.221), members of the BOG are to be appointed “on the basis of interest in public affairs, good judgment, knowledge, and ability in the field of action of the board, and with a view to providing diversity of interest and points of view in the membership.” (Emphasis mine.)

Readers may be surprised to learn that the Board of Game, after Gov. Dunleavy’s recent appointments, is now completely dominated by commercial hunting interests, with four big game guides and one retired guide on the board for the next several years. To put that into perspective, resident Alaska guides make up less than 1% of the total resident hunting population yet control five of the seven seats and votes on the BOG. How is that in any way a “diversity of interest and points of view”?

The Legislature is also responsible for this situation in confirming these appointments, knowing full well that it doesn’t just look bad, but is wrong and not the way it is supposed to be. Article 8 of our state constitution says that our wildlife belongs to all Alaskans as a public trust, to be managed sustainably for our “common use” and “maximum benefit.”

For too long, the influence in Juneau dominating hunting issues has been that of the Outside commercial hunting industry. Alaska is the only western state that places no limits on nonresident hunters across wide areas of the state. We are also the only state that mandates that nonresident hunters must hire a guide for certain species, and then places no limits on the number of guides that can operate on state lands.

This created the situation we are now in, whereby the Board of Game kowtows to the guide industry that is totally dependent on nonresident hunters.

Resident Hunters of Alaska (RHAK), the organization I represent, formed in 2016 to be a voice for resident hunters advocating for change, and while our membership has grown to over 3,000 members from across the state, we simply cannot compete with the millions of dollars Outside organizations and even those within the state pour into influencing administrations and legislators.

One particularly egregious example of how the odds are stacked against resident hunters is a case (#3AN-10-7460 CI) making its way through the courts now, brought forward by Robert Cassell, also the vice president of RHAK, regarding how brown bear draw hunt permits on Kodiak Island are allocated by the BOG. Most every other state strictly limits nonresident draw-hunting opportunities, typically with 90% of permits going to residents, 10% to nonresidents. But not Alaska.

Mr. Cassell has been putting in for a Kodiak brown bear permit over a lifetime living in the state but has never been drawn. The odds of a resident winning most Kodiak brown bear permits are 1-3%. The BOG allocates up to 40% of the total Kodiak Island brown bear permits to nonresident must-be-guided hunters and created a loophole whereby those nonresident hunters don’t have to go through a lottery process at all like residents do with low odds of drawing a permit. A nonresident hunter from another state or country with the ability to pay a guide $20, 000 or more simply calls the guide, agrees to a fee, and picks up an over-the-counter permit upon arrival for the hunt. Nonresident guided hunters, unlike resident hunters, have a 100% opportunity to hunt Kodiak brown bear.

Gov. Dunleavy supports the BOG’s allocation system for Kodiak brown bear draw permits and ensured with his appointments that the BOG would continue to agree. The state and BOG have been joined in opposition to Mr. Cassells’ suit by the Alaska Professional Hunters Association (APHA), Safari Club International (SCI), SCI Alaska Chapter, and the Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC). Yes, you read that right, even AOC, the organization ostensibly representing the best interests of Alaska hunters, thinks it’s perfectly acceptable how Kodiak brown bear draw permits are allocated.

The Cassell case will also have implications for other draw permits for other species, such as one in which the BOG allocates 50% of moose draw hunt permits to nonresident hunters and imposed a requirement that 70% of those go to guided-only nonresident hunters for the benefit of a particular guide, even though moose is not a must-be-guided species.

RHAK has been involved since our formation in fighting for change. But we are up against big money Outside interests that also have a a foothold here in Alaska with other state-based hunting organizations. It’s time for Alaska hunters to wake up and pay attention and get more involved with their local Fish & Game Advisory Committees and the Board of Game process. Read more about these issues on our website, www.residenthuntersofalaska.org. All of the Cassell case documents are also posted on our site.

Don’t be misled by other organizations and chapters with “Alaska” in their name. RHAK is the first and only organization in the state that advocates for the resident hunting priority our state constitution demands and is fighting to preserve and expand our future hunting opportunities.

Mark Richards is the executive director of Resident Hunters of Alaska. He is currently based in Fairbanks after spending over 30 years living a subsistence lifestyle in the remote Bush of the Eastern Interior.

Opinion published in Anchorage Daily News January 9, 2018

by Mark Richards

Alaska Resident Hunters Deserve Priority Backed by Law

Article 8 of the Alaska constitution directs the legislature to provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of our wildlife resources “for the maximum benefit of its people,” and also states that our wildlife resources are, “reserved to the people for common use.”

The “people” referenced are Alaskans, not citizens from other states or countries.

The legislature never enacted any statutes, however, that would require the Board of Game (BOG) – a seven-member panel that enacts all wildlife regulations – to adhere to the mandates in our constitution that give residents a clear hunting allocation priority. 

With such broad authority from the legislature, and without anything in statute requiring the BOG to allocate according to our constitution, the BOG has become overly influenced by commercial hunting interests.

Case in point: in 2016 the Alaska Department of Fish & Game announced that the Central Arctic Caribou Herd (CAH) many Alaskans depend on for food had dramatically decreased and recommended future hunting restrictions. Resident Hunters of Alaska (RHAK), the organization I represent, supported new restrictions for all users based on conservation concerns, but recommended to the BOG that nonresident hunters bear the brunt of reduced resident hunting opportunity with a 10 percent nonresident harvest cap.

The Board of Game ended up shortening seasons and severely restricting bag limits for both residents and nonresidents, but allocated 43% of the projected CAH harvest to nonresidents. Clearly not a “maximum benefit.”

In 2017 RHAK submitted several statewide BOG proposals that sought an authentic maximum-benefit resident hunting priority that reserved harvest opportunities primarily to residents.

We proposed all draw permit hunts where both residents and nonresidents were restricted that there be a required 90/10 percent resident/nonresident allocation of permits. We gave an example of a current moose draw permit hunt where 50 percent of the available permits were allocated to nonresidents. 

We proposed that the BOG limit nonresident sheep hunters who harvest 60-80 percent of our Dall sheep in some areas, an issue the BOG has long admitted is a problem in terms of resident hunter access and harvest opportunities and a quality hunting experience. 

And we proposed something that, frankly, we felt was more of a housekeeping issue. We asked that the BOG confirm that predator control programs under our Intensive Management (IM) Law were primarily in place to benefit Alaskans. When and where the state was actively conducting wolf and/or bear control programs to increase an ungulate population to benefit Alaskans, we took the position that until the minimum IM population or harvest objective for that population was met, there would be no nonresident hunting allowed, reserving the limited hunting and harvest opportunity for a depleted prey population to residents as our IM Law intended. 

None of our proposals came close to passing. 

To top it off the BOG drafted a new nonresident allocation policy – approved by 5 BOG members – that read as if it was written by the commercial hunting industry, replete with cherry-picked industry talking points. Nothing in that new policy grants residents a real hunting priority to all our wildlife resources.

This is why RHAK will be seeking a legislative solution that requires the Board of Game to allocate at all times according to the mandates in our state constitution. 

Our position – RHAK is unapologetically pro-resident – doesn’t at all mean that RHAK is “anti-nonresident” or “anti-guide.” Just as a position of pro-development doesn’t mean one is “anti-environment.” We certainly hope nonresident hunting and big game guiding can continue in Alaska. We want others to experience what Alaska has to offer, and to share our wildlife resources with family, friends, and hunters from other states and countries… just within reason. The crazy thing is, every nonresident hunter I’ve spoken with over the years, after explaining some of these types of nonresident allocations, agrees! And the typical response I get is: “We would never allow that in our state.” 

Why are we allowing it in ours? Let your legislators know that a statutory resident hunting priority for all of our wildlife resources is needed and is clearly mandated in our Alaska constitution. Join us in advocating for Alaskan families and our future hunting opportunities. 

Bio: Mark Richards is Executive Director of Resident Hunters of Alaska. 

Find them online at www.residenthuntersofalaska.org