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Alaska Board of Game set to consider a range of proposals affecting subsistence harvests in Western Alaska

A muskox bull is seen on Nunivak Island
Tim Bowman
A muskox bull is seen on Nunivak Island.

Every three years, the Alaska Board of Game holds a public meeting to consider changes to the way it manages hunting and trapping in the vast western reaches of the state. In the lead-up to the board’s January meeting in Kotzebue, state managers appear to be mostly aligned with Western Alaska communities in supporting proposals for increased harvest opportunities.

Among more than 40 proposals to be considered for lands surrounding Nome, Utqiagvik, and Kotzebue, a dozen apply to Unit 18, the massive game management unit surrounding Bethel. The proposals, which can be put forward by the state, an entity, or individuals, are mostly related to increased opportunities to harvest moose. Others seek to boost the harvest of wolves, brown bears, and ptarmigan, and two propose what would be the first-ever hunt of mainland muskoxen in Unit 18.

Bethel resident Tim Andrew, who submitted one of the muskoxen proposals, said that mainland muskoxen have spread far and wide since beginning to wander from Nelson Island in the 1970s, and that the time has come to provide an opportunity across Unit 18.

“It would provide for an additional meat source for close-proximity villages for the established populations in various areas. It just makes sense,” Andrew said.

According to comments posted ahead of the meeting, the state opposes opening the muskoxen hunt. That’s because the population of mainland muskoxen is below 300 animals, considered the bare minimum for opening a hunt.

Patrick Jones, a Unit 18 area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that illegal harvesting may be a significant factor in low herd numbers.

“We've had muskox on the mainland now for 50 years. And we're only up to 175 animals,” Jones said. “I think a lot of years, what happens is we have so much illegal harvest that it's matching or depressing the population. And that's one of the reasons we're trying to get funding to try to understand that aspect of it better.”

Of the moose proposals, one from the Native Village of Kwinhagak calls for a two-week extension of the moose hunting season in the area to compensate for missed opportunities to harvest caribou from the ailing Mulchatna herd. An identical proposal put forward by the state indicates strong support for this change.

Another moose proposal supported by the state would increase the allowable harvest in the Unit 18 remainder, site of the popular Yukon River winter hunt. The proposal would allow hunters to harvest three animals, an increase from the current management limit of two moose. This is aimed both at reducing an abundant population on track to outgrow its winter food source, and aligning with overlapping federal management.

Jones said that moose hunting moratoriums of the past have helped build healthy populations across much of Unit 18.

“The lower Yukon, the area below Mountain Village, when that moratorium took place in the early 90s, there were about 60 moose below Mountain Village and today there's 12,000,” Jones said. “Pretty similar to the Kuskokwim too. Before the moratorium, there were less than 50 moose on the mainstem Kuskokwim and now there's a little over 3,000.”

Citing healthy numbers, the state also supports a proposal to increase the harvest of brown bears in Unit 18 from one to two animals annually.

“We have a pretty healthy or extremely healthy brown bear population in Unit 18 unit-wide,” Jones said. “And you know there's, depending on how you want to crunch numbers, three to four thousand bears probably on average.”

The Alaska Board of Game will accept written comments and hear oral testimony at its Western Arctic/Western Region meeting from Jan. 26 to Jan. 29 in Kotzebue, where they will consider 42 separate proposals. The pre-meeting deadline to comment on proposals has passed. More information can be found here.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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