Opinion published in Juneau Empire January 17, 2023
by Mark Richards
Local Hunters Will Be Affected by Proposed Restrictions
Juneau hunters take note!
The Federal Subsistence Board will be meeting Jan. 31-Feb. 3 in Anchorage and will vote on wildlife proposals seeking to shut down or restrict deer hunting on the ABC Islands for non-federally qualified subsistence hunters.
If you live in Juneau and hunt deer in these areas, you will be affected. We encourage you to provide written comments and to call in and testify in opposition to these proposals at the FSB meeting when these proposals are heard.
Wildlife Proposal WP22-07 requests that the federal public lands of Admiralty Island draining into Chatham Strait between Point Marsden and Point Gardner in Unit 4 be closed to deer hunting Sept. 15-Nov. 30, except by federally qualified subsistence users.
Wildlife Proposal WP22-08 requests that the Northeast Chichagof Controlled Use Area annual deer harvest limit for non-federally qualified users be reduced to two male deer.
Wildlife Proposal WP22-10 requests that the deer harvest limit for non-federally qualified users in Lisianski Inlet and Lisianski Strait be reduced to four deer.
None of these proposals are necessary; the deer populations in Unit 4 are healthy, abundant, and stable. Subsistence needs are being met. All of these proposals are opposed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as well as the Office of Subsistence Management, which helps determine if subsistence needs are being met.
The organization I represent, Resident Hunters of Alaska, is cognizant and supportive of the real needs of subsistence hunters in rural areas. We have supported federal restrictions for non-federally qualified hunters in the past based on valid wildlife conservation concerns and cooperative working group agreements.
Unfortunately, we are seeing evermore federal proposals, such as these three to the FSB, that are not based on valid wildlife conservation concerns, nor on rural hunters subsistence needs not being met. Rather, they are about reducing competition from hunters who live in urban areas.
That is not a valid reason for federal restrictions or closures to non-federally qualified hunters. Sure, most hunters would enjoy not having to compete with other hunters to fill their freezer. But that isn’t how our system of wildlife management and hunting opportunities works under the state or federal system.
ADF&G has an excellent video presentation on Unit 4 deer populations, state and federal wildlife management processes and policies, and why the Department is opposing these proposed restrictions to non-rural hunters that can we watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZd9YozB8f4.
All of these federal wildlife proposals and OSM analyses can be found at https://www.doi.gov/subsistence/wildlife.
These three wildlife proposals will likely be heard toward the end of the FSB meeting in Anchorage. See the meeting agenda and how to provide written and oral testimony at https://www.doi.gov/subsistence/board.
Please take the time to weigh in on these proposals and make your voice heard.
Mark Richards is the executive director of Resident Hunters of Alaska and the vice-chair of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee. 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 Juneau Empire April 20, 2022
by Mark Richards
Governor is Stacking Board of Game with Guides
It’s not just bad optics for the state, it exacerbates what so many resident hunters already believe…
The Governor recently appointed Ruth Cusack, the vice-president of Safari Club International Alaska chapter, to the Board of Game. She replaces Orville Huntington, from Huslia, who after serving on the Board of Fisheries and then the Board of Game, is retiring from board service. Cusack is a hunting guide, and she and two other guides, James Cooney and Al Barrette, will also be up for confirmation when the joint session of the Legislature meets later this session.
If all three are confirmed, it will make for five guides and one retired guide on the seven-member Board of Game.
The statute governing Board of Game appointments, AS 16.05.221, speaks to the need to provide a balanced membership on the board: “The governor shall appoint each member 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.” [my emphasis]
Clearly, if all three individuals are confirmed, the Board of Game will not have a real diversity of interest and points of view. Real or perceived, the board will be overtly tilted in favor of the commercial hunting industry.
This puts the organization I represent, Resident Hunters of Alaska, in an uncomfortable position, as all three of the individuals up for confirmation are all good people whom we respect, whom we’d be happy sharing a campfire with, with knowledge on hunting and wildlife management issues.
Barrett has served one term on the board and is up for reappointment. RHAK supported his appointment three years ago, prior the appointment and confirmation of two more guides to the board, who are currently confirmed and serving. Cooney was appointed last year post confirmation hearings and served and voted on the board for the 2022 Southcentral and Statewide meetings.
We want to support good people on the board. But we simply cannot support in principle the addition of three more hunting guides to the board.
RHAK formed in 2016 in large part because resident hunters were frustrated with the Board of Game continually catering to the guide industry with special allocations to guides and their nonresident clients. Moose is not a “must-be-guided” species for nonresident U.S. citizens, but the board created new “must-be-guided” moose hunts to benefit specific guides, and in one case allocated 50% of a moose draw permit to nonresident hunters. The board allocates up to 40% of all coveted Kodiak brown bear draw permits to nonresident guided hunters and created a loophole in the regulations whereby those nonresident hunters don’t have to go through an actual lottery process to hunt. Unlike residents who have a 1-3 percent chance to draw a permit and can put in for decades and never draw, the nonresident guided hunter has a 100 percent opportunity to hunt if he or she has enough money to pay a guide. They don’t have to file an application, pay the application fee, they just sign a contract with a guide and pick up an over-the-counter permit on Kodiak when they arrive.
RHAK has always made recommendations on Board of Game appointments to Boards and Commissions, and we have recommended four individuals, three men and one woman, none of whom hold a guide license. All are highly qualified to serve.
None of this is personal; these are all good people the governor wants to be confirmed. We are not saying they will always vote a certain way, simply because they hold a guide license and have ties to the commercial hunting industry, but legislators should be wary of rubber-stamping the governor’s desire to stack the board with commercial hunting interests. It’s not just bad optics for the state, it exacerbates what so many resident hunters already believe: that their voices aren’t really being considered or heard by the Board of Game.
Opinion published in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner February 16, 2022
by Mark Richards
Sheep Hunters Need to Get Involved to Help Dall Population
Imagine if you lived in a state with the only wild population of Dall sheep in the country — a species highly coveted by hunters from across the world — and the way that state managed those sheep in many areas was to require that all nonresidents must hire a guide, placed no limits on the number of nonresident hunters or guides, and a guided sheep hunt went for a lucrative price upwards of $25,000.
That’s how Alaska manages our sheep on state lands in parts of the Interior in Game Management Units 20A and 19C in the central and western Alaska range, where nonresident guided sheep hunters consistently harvest 60-80 percent of legal rams annually.
For well over a decade now, resident sheep hunters have been asking the Board of Game — to no avail — to limit nonresident sheep hunters in those units over conservation concerns for the declining sheep population and fears that residents would lose general sheep hunting opportunities.
That is exactly what happened in the Chugach Mountains in Southcentral Alaska. For years resident hunters asked the board to limit nonresident sheep hunters there, who were taking the majority of rams and causing conflicts between guides and with resident hunters, but the board refused, until the Department of Fish and Game finally stated they had conservation concerns for the sheep population. The board then acted and placed everyone — both residents and nonresidents — on restrictive hard-to-get draw-only permits with a very limited number of permits.
The situation is now so bad in Units 19C and 20A that some guides are asking for a moratorium on all sheep hunting for everyone, after years of opposing limits on their very own clients. In late 2020, the Fish and Game shut down the winter resident-only subsistence sheep season in Unit 19C due to conservation concerns, yet the general season sheep hunt in which nonresidents take 80 percent of the sheep harvest was allowed to continue. This does not at all comport with the directives in Article 8 of our state constitution that say we are supposed to manage our wildlife for the “common use” and “maximum benefit” of Alaskans. Neither does it comport with what ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang says is his primary goal in an op-ed titled “Defending the Hunting Rights of Alaskans.” “My number one goal, as mandated by Alaska’s constitution, is to deliver to the people of Alaska the maximum use and benefit of fish and game resources while ensuring a sustained yield for future generations.” [source: bit.ly/3gL2MqO]
Resident Hunters of Alaska (RHAK), the organization I represent, formed in 2016 in large part over frustration that the board was not adhering to our state constitution in terms of how we manage and allocate our exclusive Dall sheep resource. Real “conservation” and sustainable management of our sheep populations was not happening. Residents were bearing the brunt of sheep hunting restrictions that came about because of unlimited nonresident sheep hunting opportunities.
RHAK has been submitting proposals since our formation requesting that the board limit nonresident sheep hunters in Units 20A and 19C. We have compromised over the years with the guide industry by asking for less strict limits on the number of nonresident sheep hunters, only to have the guide industry continue to oppose placing any limits on their clients, even when we all agreed the sheep were in decline and something needed to be done.
We can’t control the weather, which for the most part is what is causing recent declines in sheep across the state. Deep snow winters, icing events and climate change that is negatively impacting Dall sheep habitat are not within our ability to manage. Predation by wolves, bears, coyotes, wolverines and golden eagles that accounts for some additive mortality of sheep are also out of our control. But there is one thing that we can control: the number of hunters.
The opposition to imposing limits on nonresident sheep hunters is based primarily on money; the money that comes to the state from the sale of nonresident hunting licenses and tags, and the money that goes to guides. While it’s true that imposing limits on nonresident sheep hunters in parts of the Alaska range would minimally reduce the money going to the Department of Fish & Game, and impact guide businesses and individual guides in those areas, we are not supposed to base wildlife management decisions on money coming into the state or what is best for the commercial hunting industry. We are supposed to base management decisions on what is best for the sustainability of the wildlife resource, and secondarily what is best for the continuation of resident sheep hunting opportunities. Just as outlined by Commissioner Vincent-Lang.
It’s time for resident sheep hunters to get more involved to protect sheep populations and resident sheep hunting opportunities for themselves, their children, and future generations of Alaska hunters. RHAK has a proposal currently before the Board of Game that will be heard at the statewide meeting in March in Fairbanks. It is Proposal #267, which asks to limit nonresident sheep hunters in Unit 19C. We’d like the board to also consider limits on nonresident sheep hunters in Unit 20A.
You can read our proposal on the Board’s website at bit.ly/3uXY3Ky.
The statewide Board of Game meeting takes place at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks March 4-12. You can send in written comments (the deadline is Feb. 18) and sign up to testify at bit.ly/33n1QWm.
Get involved, send in comments, and show up to testify. It’s the only way to make your voice heard.
Opinion published in Anchorage Daily News January 15, 2022
by Mark Richards
State Should Allow Remote Testimony for Board of Game’s Wasilla Meeting
I was recently required to register to attend and testify at the Wasilla Board of Game meeting that runs Jan. 21-29 at the Best Western Lake Lucille Inn and sign an “Acknowledgement of Risk” and liability waiver so I cannot sue the state should I come down with COVID-19 from attending the meeting.
The Board of Fisheries meeting that was supposed to take place in Ketchikan earlier this month was canceled and postponed because, as the executive director of the Board of Fisheries, Glenn Haight, explained: “Cases in Southeast are increasing in almost every community. With the rise in cases post the holiday season, already key staff have contracted COVID-19 and are unable to participate. In addition, the nation and Alaska are facing serious transportation difficulties as weather and the pandemic are seriously hampering travel in the near-term.”
Surely that is still the case, as Alaska is seeing record COVID case counts right now, so it was surprising that the Board of Game would still be meeting in person this coming week in Wasilla. Surprising, but not unwelcome, as both boards have already had to postpone meetings that should have happened last year due to the pandemic.
While I’m glad that the Board of Game meeting is still taking place in person, and have no problem with attending, I know that many who live in outlying areas and villages, after reading the lengthy warnings in the registration documents that make it seem likely that you will be exposed to COVID at the meeting, will choose not to attend. Yet the Board of Game will not allow those members of the public to testify remotely; only Department of Fish and Game staff and Fish and Game advisory committees will be allowed to testify virtually and avoid the possibility of catching COVID at the meeting and bringing it back to their village or family.
Both boards have had a year to review and develop COVID mitigation policies at meetings and, if meetings could not take place in person, the ability to hold virtual meetings, which would allow remote testimony from the public, Fish and Game staff and advisory committees. However, according to the department, “It was determined by both boards during reviews of their 2020-2021 meeting cycle, that these complex subjects and the necessary public involvement required, could not be done telephonically or through web conferencing.”
While I understand it is problematic to set up and allow remote public testimony at a Board of Game meeting, if advisory committees and Fish and Game staff will be allowed to present and testify telephonically and/or through web conferencing, so as not to expose themselves to a “high-risk environment” where “COVID-19 may be present at this meeting,” it would seem there is a way to also make that work for the public.
The upcoming Board of Game meeting will cover hunting and trapping regulations for Region IV, which covers game management units 9, 10, 11, 13, 14A, 14B, 16 and 17, comprising areas from Glennallen, Palmer, King Salmon and Dillingham. Four years have gone by since the Board of Game last reviewed game population densities in Region IV and seasons and bag limits, and the board has more than 100 proposals to consider.
Alaska has one of the best public systems of wildlife management and involvement in the country, but only if the public has the means to be involved. Written comments were allowed to be sent in, but those do not have the same effect as public testimony, whether in person or done remotely via phone or web conference. It is unfair and disenfranchises the public at large when you tell them it’s a high risk to attend the meeting in person, make them sign a liability waiver, yet that is the only way to make your voice heard.
If you do want to attend the Board of Game meeting in Wasilla in person to testify, you can register online and sign the acknowledgement of risk and waiver.
Opinion published in 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 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.
Opinion published in Anchorage Daily News May 7, 2021
by Mark Richards
Commercial Interests Dominate Alaska’s Board of Game
It’s time for the Alaska Legislature to recognize that the makeup of, and the broad authority granted to, the Alaska Board of Game, allows the board to make decisions that are contrary to our state constitution in terms of allocations and favorability to nonresident hunters.
A prime example revolves around a case making its way through the courts — Cassell v. State of Alaska, Board of Game — regarding the board’s regulations governing the Kodiak brown bear draw hunt system.
For many Alaskans, and certainly many nonresidents as well, a Kodiak brown bear hunt is the one coveted hunt they would like to go on in their lifetime. But the board has made it extremely difficult for a resident to draw a permit, while at the same time making it exceedingly easy for a nonresident guided hunter to participate in the hunt.
About 5,000 Alaskans apply for a Kodiak brown bear permit annually, and for most areas on Kodiak Island, the chance of a resident drawing a permit is 1% to 3%. Many Alaskans have been putting in for this permit for decades without ever drawing. A nonresident guided hunter, on the other hand, has a 100% opportunity to go on a Kodiak brown bear hunt if he or she has $20,000 or more to spend.
How is that possible? First, the Board of Game allocates up to 40% of the Kodiak brown bear permits to guided nonresident hunters. That allocation to nonresidents is the impetus for the Cassell suit, arguing that such a high allocation to nonresident hunters is unconstitutional according to Article 8, sections 2 and 3 of our state constitution:
Section 2. General Authority
• The Legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.
Section 3. Common Use
• Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.
Secondly, the guided nonresident permits aren’t allocated to the hunter; they are allocated to the individual guides with exclusive rights to guide within the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, or KNWR, which covers two-thirds of Kodiak Island.
The way the board set this up, each guide with an exclusive guide use concession within KNWR is allocated a set number of permits for the spring and fall hunts, and each guide can choose to utilize those permits however they see fit. (This is also the case for other draw hunts on federal lands.) A contract between a nonresident guided hunter and the guide must be signed before that hunter — or the guide who submits the application — can apply for a Kodiak brown bear permit, but the board included a loophole whereby the nonresident guided hunter who signs a contract with a guide can just show up in Kodiak and get an over-the-counter permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADF&G, without ever having to go through the draw permit process or pay the draw permit application fee.
At the 2019 Board of Game meeting that covers regulations for Kodiak Island, Resident Hunters of Alaska, or RHAK, the organization I represent, brought this issue up with a proposal — No. 103 — asking the board to fix this loophole and require all nonresident guided hunters to go through the same draw permit application lottery that residents are required to, and if any of the draw permits allocated to individual guides were not applied for that those permits be transferred to the resident pool of tags. The word “lottery” is important here, as it defines that it is pure chance that an applicant is awarded a permit. During that same meeting, Dr. Bob Cassell, who is the plaintiff in the Cassell suit and also the vice-president of RHAK, put in a proposal under his name asking the board to increase the resident allocation of permits to not less than 90% of the total available.
Another concern RHAK addressed was that the board had also previously passed a regulation promoted by the guide industry putting all the Kodiak brown bear nonresident next-of-kin hunters in the resident pool of tags, which is also clearly not constitutional. We proposed that those permits be a part of the nonresident pool of tags, as state law intended.
None of the RHAK proposals passed, and neither did Dr. Cassell’s proposal. This led to Dr. Cassell’s lawsuit, using his own money, against the state and Board of Game. RHAK later joined in support of the Cassell complaint filing an amicus “friend of the court” brief.
The Alaska Professional Hunters Association that represents resident and nonresident Alaska-licensed guides intervened in the lawsuit in opposition, and was later joined by the Alaska Outdoor Council, Safari Club International, and the Alaska chapter of the Safari Club, labeling themselves the “Hunting Coalition.”
It was a given that APHA would oppose the case, as some of the guides they represent would be affected by a lower percentage of the guaranteed clients that they receive now. And as Safari Club International represents mostly Outside and non-U.S. citizens who have a stake in seeing Alaska’s one-of-a-kind high allocations to nonresidents continue, it wasn’t really a surprise that they also would oppose the case. But what was surprising was AOC and SCI AK jumping into the mix with opposition, as they are supposed to represent Alaska hunters who, if they want to hunt a Kodiak brown bear, are being openly discriminated against by board regulations.
One of the remarkable things about the APHA legal motions against the Cassell complaint is use of the term “lottery” to support their opposition, using that term as it applies to the guided nonresident draw permits. Clearly it is not a lottery if nonresident guided hunters have a 100% opportunity to hunt a Kodiak brown bear if they can come up with that much money, which runs completely contrary to the principle of our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, not to mention our own state constitution that holds our wildlife as a public trust for the common use of Alaskans.
These types of issues where the board favors nonresidents at the expense of residents have been ongoing and we fear it may get worse. The governor has appointed two more guides to the board, one of whom is a Kodiak guide with an exclusive guiding concession within KNWR, who was labeled the “APHA candidate.” If these new guide appointments are confirmed, it will make for three guides and one retired guide on the seven-member board.
RHAK is opposing both new guide appointments on the grounds that it completely unbalances the board in favor of commercial interests. It’s nothing against either man personally; both are well-qualified to serve. However, put another way, there are on average 100,000 Alaska residents who purchase a hunting license annually and contribute more than $1 billion to our economy. There are 1,230 Alaska-licensed guides, more than a quarter of whom are nonresidents. Resident guides make up less than 1% of all Alaska hunters, yet will essentially control the votes on the board if two more guides are confirmed.
The Legislature will meet in a joint session soon to confirm or deny these appointments, and we urge the public to contact their representatives and urge them to oppose the addition of two more guides to the Board. You can view all the court documents and contribute to Dr. Cassell’s legal fees via our website.