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RHAK Presentation to the Legislature 2024

Below are the slides and speaker notes. To watch the recording on the Alaska State Legislature site, click this link 

(presentation starts at the 10:00 minute mark).

Slide 1

Slide 2 – Intent of Our State Constitution

Slide 2

Our organization is tied to Article 8 of our state constitution that intended for our wildlife resources to be held as a public trust for the maximum benefit and common use of Alaskans. This means that residents should have a clear priority to the harvest of our wildlife resources, regardless of whether it is for putting food on the table, or a trophy mount on the wall. But our constitution is not being followed. To this day, Alaska is the only western state that does not limit nonresident hunters in ways to ensure resident hunters have a priority, and that is causing all kinds of problems that I’ll address today, as well as some possible solutions. 

Slide 3 – Authority of Boards

Slide 3

This slide shows which boards have regulatory authority over hunters and guides. The Board of Game has broad authority granted by the legislature to determine all hunting seasons, bag limits, methods and means, and allocations. Contrary to what many hunters and non-hunters believe, the Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Conservation Division only advises and makes recommendations to the Board of Game and does not make management decisions as far as allocations, seasons, or bag limits. The Department has a policy to remain neutral on all allocation proposals submitted to the board. The Big Game Commercial Services board licenses and regulates big game guides. That board also regulates transporters. The Federal Subsistence Board regulates hunting seasons, bag limits, and allocations on federal lands for federal subsistence hunts.

Slide 4 – What Are the Issues? 

Slide 4

So what are the issues that concern us?  Here you see a few examples of allocation decisions the Board of Game has made. It’s important to understand that wherever we have draw permit hunts, that means there isn’t enough of a wildlife population to allow everyone the opportunity to hunt. Even with big game prey species such as moose and caribou defined within our intensive management law as being important to providing food for Alaskans, and our subsistence statute that clearly prioritizes the subsistence take of wildlife over other uses, the board of game has made decisions and taken actions completely contrary to those laws and regulations. We have a moose draw hunt that allocates 50% of the permits to nonresidents, and the board has made moose a must-be-guided species for most of those permits to benefit an individual guide. We have a popular caribou draw permit hunt that allocates 25% of the permits to nonresidents. The board allows unlimited nonresident sheep hunting for declining sheep populations on many state lands and allows nonresident guided hunters to take 60-90% of the sheep in those areas. The board allocates up to 40% of all coveted Kodiak brown bear draw permits to nonresident guided hunters, and purposely games the system for those nonresident hunters.

Slide 5 – Central Arctic Caribou Herd Crash

Slide 5

Here’s an example of something that you’d think wouldn’t be allowed to happen under our current laws and regulations. In 2016, the Central Arctic Caribou herd, which is an Intensive Management game population recognized as important for feeding Alaskans, dwindled to 22,000 animals, well under the Intensive Management objective. Hunting restrictions were necessary for both residents and nonresidents to allow the herd to rebound. But the Board of Game instituted restrictions, against our objections, in a way that allowed nonresident hunters to take the majority of the caribou harvest the next two years.

Slide 6 – Kodiak Examples

Slide 6

To better understand what’s going on with the Kodiak brown bear draw permitting system, here’s a screen shot from a social media post that outlines the 100% opportunity nonresident guided hunters have to hunt a Kodiak brown bear. I’ve taken the pictures and names out of these screenshots. This nonresident hunter was able to go on five guided Kodiak brown bear hunts until he got his coveted 10 foot bear. Note the reply from a resident hunter congratulating the hunter but explaining how wrong this is that he had to put in for ten years to draw a permit and this guy gets to hunt whenever he wants.

Slide 7 – Kodiak “Draw” Permit System

Slide 7

This slide shows how these hunts are labeled in the draw permit supplement for nonresident guided hunters, as drawing permits, in a lottery system, with a requirement to apply. The map shows all the different permit hunt areas within the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in which guides have exclusive concessions. In reality, these nonresident permits are awarded to the individual guides for each concession area to do with as they wish. On the right side you’ll see an advertisement from a guide with one of the exclusive concession areas on Kodiak touting that one can skip the permit process entirely. This is what has been going on for decades. We have submitted proposals to the board to change how they structured this hunt for nonresident guided hunters, but those have been voted down. At the last regional meeting when we again requested changes, the board chairman exclaimed on the record: “Why are these labeled as draw hunts, they are not draw hunts, nonresidents have 100% opportunity.” But still, he and the rest of the board voted our proposal down and allowed this scheme to continue. It is appalling that residents may never have a chance in their lifetime to hunt a Kodiak brown bear, but nonresidents with enough money to hire a guide have a 100% opportunity to hunt.

Slide 8 – The Cassell Case 

Slide 8

Dr. Robert Cassell, who is our RHAK vice-president, sued the Board of Game over the high allocation of Kodiak brown bear “draw” permits to nonresidents. The crux of the case is that there is a bright red line in Article 8 of our state constitution that mandates that Alaskans have common use of our wildlife resources. Granting an exclusive hunting opportunity privilege to nonresidents crosses that line and is unconstitutional. The Cassell case was recently heard by the Alaska Supreme Court. Their decision will likely take a year or longer. We don’t expect this case, regardless of how the court rules, to solve this issue. It will, as many of the other examples I’ll show, require a legislative solution, and I’ll go into some of those possible solutions shortly.

Slide 9 – Sheep Examples

Slide 9

Let’s talk sheep. This question up on the screen is something I’ve asked wildlife managers in the lower-48 western states, and their answers have always been the same.  For those unaware, the demand to hunt Dall sheep from hunters in the lower-48 and across the world is significantly higher than the number of huntable sheep available. The only place these thinhorn Dall sheep exist is in Alaska and the Yukon & Northwest Territories of Canada. One doesn’t have to be a wildlife manager to understand what would happen under this scenario, and this is how the Board of Game has chosen to manage our declining sheep populations on state lands over much of the state. Money and greed are driving things and we end up, as this chart shows for Unit 19C in the western Alaska range, with nonresident guided sheep hunters crowding out residents and taking the vast majority of the sheep harvest. This is what all the lower-48 wildlife managers said would happen. Since our formation in 2016, we have been submitting proposals to the board of game to limit nonresident sheep hunters on state lands where it is causing crowding and conflicts among the user groups, guide on guide conflicts, and nonresidents taking most of the sheep harvest. Our proposals have been voted down every time, even though the Board of Game has publicly acknowledged for many years that these are real problems that need to be addressed.

Slide 10 – Refusing to Limit Nonresident Sheep Hunters

Slide 10

Why has the board refused to limit nonresident sheep hunters? The Board of Game, the guide lobby, and even the Big Game Commercial Services Board that regulates guides, claims the problem is too many guides, and that the only solution for these known problems is to institute a guide concession program on state lands to strictly limit guides. The state already spent a million dollars on the former proposed Guide Concession Program on state lands that would be under the authority of the Dept of Natural Resources. Legislation was introduced that was legally questionable and had a 1-million-dollar fiscal note to get it started. That legislation failed and now it is being introduced again as the only solution to these known problems. 

Slide 11 – DNR Alternatives to Guide Concession Program

Slide 11

The Dept of Natural Resources listed alternative solutions to a guide concession program that are shown on this slide, including the obvious: A simple solution is for the Board of Game to place limits on nonresident hunters via a permitting system. They also showed how the Big Game Commercial Services Board could limit guides via various mechanisms under their authority. The only reason the Board of Game, the Big Game Commercial Services Board, and the guide lobby say the Guide Concession Program on state lands is the only solution is because it is the best solution for guides. And they have continually punted on fixing the problems by saying this is the only solution. We need to stop looking at the solutions to the known problems only in terms of what is best for the guide industry. It’s the exact wrong approach and it is costing us dearly.

Slide 12 – Managing Like a Pendulum

Slide 12

Before I get into some possible legislative solutions and guardrails to help fix some of these issues, I want to address some inherent structural problems in how we manage our wildlife. Governors change and each Governor changes the makeup of the Board of Game, often along ideological/political lines and the wildlife management agenda of individual Governors. This allows a Governor to appoint a Fish & Game Commissioner who aligns with his or her agenda, and to “stack” the Board as he or she sees fit, which creates a pendulum effect in how the Board directs the Department to manage our game, which has led to inconsistent policies and sometimes dramatic changes in policies. I’ve highlighted the complete opposite positions on predator control efforts under the Knowles and Palin administrations as one example, but there are many others. This isn’t a good way to consistently manage our wildlife, no matter which side of the aisle one is on. In our current situation, we have an unprecedented imbalance on the Board of Game in favor of commercial hunting interests with guides making up a majority of the board.

Slide 13 – Board of Game Reforms

Slide 13

One of the main things legislators should look at is how the board is currently structured and the way we appoint Board of Game members. Clearly we are not adhering to the “diversity of interests” aspect of the statute regarding appointments. The Board of Game continue to have problems regarding having a diversity of interests. It’s important to have some commercial industry representation on the board, but what we’ve seen is that the board tends to be more heavily influenced by commercial interests. That’s not at all to say commercial interests aren’t important; it’s just that we shouldn’t allow them to override the interests of Alaskans and the well-being of our fish and game populations. To put things in perspective, there are some 100,000 Alaskans who purchase a hunting license each year. Less that 1% of those Alaskans are guides, yet guides currently make up a majority of the seven-member Board of Game. We also allow members to serve who are affiliated with and voting members of the boards of other organizations. That is the case on the Board of Game now with one member. Any time someone who is appointed who is on a voting position for an organization involved in Board of Game issues, that person should be required to step down while on the board of game. 

Slide 14 – Legislative Guardrails

Slide 14

Senator Coghill carried this legislation for us that you see on the screen, as SB 77 during the 31st legislature, a one word change to AS 16.05.256 regarding nonresident and nonresident alien permits. The bill never moved out of this committee. The board of game is able to get away with not making nonresident hunters bear the brunt of any hunting restrictions or closures in part because of the word “may” in this statute.

Slide 15 – Resident Preference Not Being Followed

Slide 15

This is the statute that ostensibly requires the board of game to always provide a preference to residents over nonresidents in the taking of moose, deer, elk, and caribou. Is allocating 25% of a caribou draw permit to nonresidents really a resident preference? Is allowing nonresidents to take the majority of Central Arctic caribou herd after it crashed a resident preference? Again, while it may seem that we have statutory guardrails in place, the board of game continually does things that don’t comply with the real intent of those guardrails.  

Slide 16 – Intensive Management Law 

Slide 16

Our Intensive Management law was sold as something necessary to help boost low prey populations in order to help put food on the tables of Alaskans. All of our identified Intensive Management game populations have population and harvest objectives. Are those harvest objectives specifically for residents? If we are under those objectives, why do we allow nonresident hunting opportunity? The Fortymile caribou herd is an Intensive Management population that is in decline and we are possibly looking at the same kind of future as the Nelchina herd that has been closed to all hunting. Yet we allow unlimited nonresident hunting of the Fortymile herd and nonresidents take 25% of the total harvest. 

Slide 17 – Intensive Management Amendments

Slide 17

This slide shows some possible amendments to our Intensive Management definitions to make clear that these goal are intended specifically to benefit Alaskans. The same type of amendments could be inserted into AS 16.05.255(e) from the previous slide. 

Slide 18 – Adding Sheep to Intensive Management Law

Slide 18

With our sheep populations in drastic declines, there are proposals before the board to conduct predator reduction efforts to benefit sheep, but sheep are not within our Intensive Management statutes. Adding sheep to the Intensive Management list of species would greatly help to ensure residents have a hunting priority to our Dall sheep resource.

Slide 19 – Draw Permit Hunts

Slide 19

We have nothing in statute that requires the Board of Game, when instituting draw permit hunts, to guarantee a clear resident priority to those permits. Again, drawing hunts exist because there is not enough game to allow unlimited hunting opportunity. We firmly believe our state constitution mandates that we give resident hunters a clear opportunity priority to all of our wildlife resources. But there is nothing to direct the Board of Game to do that. 

Slide 20 – Conclusion

Slide 20

In closing, I wanted to make clear that we welcome nonresident hunters to Alaska and want to share our state and our incredible wildlife resources with them, but there has to limits. Guides provide a valuable service to hunters and we have nothing against guides, but we can’t allow the commercial hunting industry to continue to dominate wildlife management decisions and allocations. Nonresident hunter dollars are certainly important, but we can’t base decisions on who brings in the most money. That is contrary to our Alaska constitution and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

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