After being deferred for a year by the Federal Subsistence Board, a final meeting to vote on the potential closure of over 60 million acres of federal land in Alaska to non-federally qualified subsistence users—meaning any non-local caribou and moose hunters—will take place on March 30, 2020.
Outdoor Life has covered this proposal, named WSA21-01, as it has developed. So the proposed closure doesn’t seem to be supported by science or data on big-game harvests. Non-local hunters take approximately 350 bull caribou each year, which is only 3 percent of the annual harvestable surplus in these areas. Further, biologists have found no evidence to support claims that non-local hunters are changing migration patterns or timing. Moose hunting is included in WSA21-01, but caribou are the focus of almost all discussion. Moose hunting is already restricted in many areas for non-local hunters, and the region has not supported a large moose population historically.
WSA21-01 first national attention in April of 2021 and was received deferred for a year. The federal subsistence board requested more information and time to examine the issue. At a December 2021 meeting of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced recent survey results that showed a decline in the herd’s population from 244,000 in 2019 to 188,000 currently. The margin-of-error places the herd just at or under the 200,000 animal threshold for intensified management, but the working group and ADF&G made no recommendations to reduce harvest.
ADF&G is staunchly opposing the proposal to close public lands to non-local hunters. A statement from deputy commissioner Ben Mulligan from January 24, 2022 says:
“The rationale given does not meet the requirements for such a closure under the provisions of Section 8 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) for either the conservation of healthy populations of moose and caribou or for the continuation of subsistence uses of such populations. Any approval of the proposed closure would be viewed as a violation of federal law, and we urge the Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) to follow the law and reject this proposal.”
Mulligan also says that non-qualified or non-local users typically do not hunt in the same areas as qualified local subsistence hunters, and peace officers have observed no systematic user conflicts. It asserts that if this closure were to pass, hunters would be confined to state lands — many of which are close to the communities where subsistence users live and hunt.
The date of the FSB meeting can be found on the board’s webpage, but no press releases or additional information have been published yet. According to Mulligan, it is unclear whether there will be any public testimony allowed—some sources have indicated that public testimony won’t be heard.
There have been two public hearings on the proposal so far, one on April 23, 2021, before the FSB deferred the issue, and another on November 17, 2021. USFWS policy coordinator Robbin La Vine stated in an email on Nov 4, 2021, that dates were being coordinated for “at least one more public hearing” but that hearing hasn’t happened. When asked about the upcoming March 30, 2022, meeting to vote on WSA21-01, La Vine stated that a press release is in the works, but did not respond directly to the question about the opportunity for public input on the proposal.