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SEARAC opposes bag limit increase

Daily News Staff Writer

A state proposal to reverse a bag limit for deer on federal land in Game Management Unit 2 was opposed unanimously by the Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council on Wednesday in Ketchikan.

The council recommended against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s request to change the bag limit available to hunters who don’t qualify for the federal subsistence priority from the current limit of two bucks back to the pre-2018 limit of four bucks on federal land in Unit 2, which includes Prince of Wales Island.

Council members questioned Fish and Game’s position supporting the higher bag limit, including the department’s assertions that no conservation concerns exist for deer in Unit 2, and that there’s no “credible argument” that the two-buck limit is necessary to continue subsistence uses.

The central view of the council — which had proposed the two-buck limit during the 2018 regulatory cycle after federally qualified subsistence users testified during a meeting in Craig that their subsistence needs for deer were not being met in Unit 2 — was that subsistence needs continue to be difficult to meet there.

“If the needs are not being met, then we need to listen and talk with the people and do what they want us to do,” Council Member Harvey Kitka said before the unanimous voice vote was taken on Wednesday.

The council’s recommendation next goes to the Federal Subsistence Board, which is scheduled to meet April 20-24 in Anchorage.

Wednesday’s action was the latest in a long line stretching back to the mid-1990s regarding deer management in Unit 2.

At present, rural residents of game management units 1-5 qualify for the federal subsistence preference on federal public lands in Unit 2. Most of the Ketchikan area, with an exception for Saxman, is deemed nonrural for subsistence purposes.

The changes in federal subsistence regulations over time have provided for increased harvest opportunities for federally qualified subsistence users in Unit 2 while reducing opportunities for non federally qualified hunters.

Subsistence users have a season of July 24 through Jan. 31, with a bag limit of five deer. One of those five deer may be a female deer harvested from Oct, 15 through Jan. 31.

Although the state general hunting season begins on Aug. 1 and continues through Dec. 31, non-federally qualified subsistence users may not hunt on federal public lands in Unit 2 (except for a portion of southeast Prince of Wales Island) from Aug. 1 through Aug. 15. The non-federally qualified subsistence users have a bag limit of two male deer.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game submitted a proposal to rescind the two-buck limit beginning in the 2020 hunting season.

The department cited a range of issues, including a view that the Federal Subsistence Board doesn’t have the authority to restrict non-federally qualified users “unnecessarily.” Fish and Game also asserts that no conservation concern exists for deer in Unit 2, and that returning to a four-buck limit would have a marginal effect on deer populations and subsistence uses.

On Wednesday, those positions were voiced by Ryan Scott, the assistant director of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“Based on the data that had been presented, there is no evidence that hunting by non-federally qualified hunters has resulted in a biological concern per the Unit 2 deer population or affected subsistence users,” Scott said. “... We believe that failing to adopt the proposal would unjustly limit non-federally qualified users and largely, in the context of this discussion, many of those non-federally qualified users come out of Ketchikan with a long history of hunting in Unit 2.”

Scott was challenged on several points by Regional Advisory Council Chair Don Hernandez of Point Baker, who in part cited the widespread view on Prince of Wales Island that Unit 2 hunters were seeing fewer bucks and finding it difficult to fill their freezers.

Hernandez asked whether the state viewed the Federal Reserve Board as not being able to address harvest method and means for non-federally qualified subsistence users, just season length.

Scott, who noted that he isn’t an attorney, said “I believe what the state is pointing out there that based on the data that we have, we don't see a conservation concern ... that would necessitate a changing non-federally qualified bag limits.”

The Federal Subsistence Board, based on the regional advisory council recommendations, has a suite of options that it can choose from, Scott said.

“The state’s comment ... is primarily on the data that we see, not only on the harvest but the data we have for population,” Scott said. “It doesn’t suggest a conservation concern and that’s how we approached the proposal.”

There also was discussion by the council and federal and state representatives about declines in deer harvest and number of hunters seen in Unit 2 since 2015, based upon information submitted by hunter reports. Other discussion centered on doe harvest, and a perceived imbalance in Unit 2 between bucks and does, with fewer bucks being observed.

Before the council began its deliberations on the proposal, it heard comments from Gloria Burns of the Ketchikan Indian Community.

She said that when the regional advisory council originally proposed changing the non-federally qualified users’ bag limit from four deer to two deer, Irene Dundas who then was president of KIC, surveyed KIC’s membership. KIC’s tribal membership has significant ties to communities on Prince of Wales Island, “so it was concerning just to have that limit changed,” Burns said.

She said Dundas talked with the tribal leadership and indicated that the people with a real traditional ecological knowledge of the island were seeing a change and were not getting the food that they needed.

“We haven’t seen a change in that,” said Burns.

She said later that “it’s not just subsistence, it’s food sovereignty. And I really strongly believe that the people in that area, you know, living right there, they have a right to their food sovereignty before other folks come in. And so I just wanted to say for the perspective, historically, looking at that and really it’s the conclusion that had to come, you know, at a great cost ... to the harvesting capability of our own tribal citizens.”

The other person to comment before the council deliberation was Loren Stanton of Ketchikan.

Stanton described how he started hunting on POW in 1978 with members of his family. Times have changed, however, and “we may be coming to, in the big picture, the end of an era,” he said.

“I don't think you're going to have to worry about as many people from Unit 1 any more because you can see by the statistics that the number of hunters are going down and the amount of time or hunting on Prince of Wales is going down,” Stanton said. “And there are multiple reasons for this.”

As the Baby Boom generation ages, fewer of its members are continuing to hunt, said Stanton. Meanwhile, the younger generations aren’t taking up hunting as much, and changes in diet as people shift to vegetarian or vegan lifestyles is likely to diminish hunting activity.   

“I think there’s still a lot of deer on Prince of Wales Island, and they’re going to be fewer hunters,” Stanton said.

The council, which comprises members from around Southeast Alaska but none from Ketchikan, deliberated briefly before taking a vote.

Kitka noted that they’d heard a lot of testimony on the topic.

“When it actually came down to it, the lady (Burns) from KIC probably hit it more closely than when I was really thinking about earlier, and I never really thought that another organization would come out and say the needs of the people have to be met first,” Kitka said.

Council Member Mike Douville of Craig said that he believes there is a buck-doe imbalance on POW, and cited factors such as bear and wolf populations, 3,000 miles of roaded access, and many timber harvest areas that now are reaching a stem-exclusion stage that isn’t good deer habit as issues affecting the deer population on POW.

“We’re seeing does, but we don’t see what would be an adequate amount of bucks,” said Douville adding that he doesn’t think now is a good time to change the bag limit because he thinks that it could eventually bring some sort of balance to the buck-doe ratio.

Hernandez concluded the council’s discussion.

“We listened to all the public testimony, and people on the Island — even people here in Ketchikan — are talking about seeing reductions in availability of deer,” Hernandez said. “So, maybe we won't be able to convince the Department of Fish and Game that we're looking at a conservation concern, but I think we're certainly looking at a situation where we could be in a dire conservation concern in the near future if we don't, you know, take some action now. The trends do not look good.”

He said the hope would be that slowing down the harvest of bucks “in any way we can without unduly impacting the non-subsistence hunters” might improve things in the future.

“I don't know if I ever see a scenario where ... this council would be reinstating the four-buck limit on Unit 2,” he said. “I'll be frank. You know, that might be here to stay.”

The council voted unanimously against recommending the proposal.

Later on Wednesday, the council also opposed five other proposals related to federal subsistence regulations for deer in Unit 2. All were submitted by the East Prince of Wales Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

 One of the committee’s proposals would eliminate the harvest of female deer in Unit 2 and allow harvest of antlered deer only. Another proposal requests that female deer harvest in Unit 2 occur under a federal registration permit. Other proposals would reduce the subsistence season end date for deer in Unit 2 from Jan. 31 to Dec. 31, and to cut the federal harvest limit for deer there from five deer to four deer.