Should western Bristol Bay hunters be allowed to chase caribou by snowmachine?

Nov 7, 2017

Proposal 148 would allow hunters to position the animals (plus wolves and wolverines), rather than position the hunter, which most admit is currently common practice. But biologists say chasing vulnerable Nushagak Peninsula caribou in the spring could be dangerous to the health of the herd.

“The intent [with proposal 148] is to legalize what we’re doing already,” said Nushagak AC chairman Frank Woods.
Credit KDLG

How hunters legally use snowmachines to take caribou in Unit 17 is the subject of a regulatory proposal the state Board of Game will take up in February. Proposal 148 was submitted by Kenneth Nukwak from Manokotak, and was the subject of some spirited debate at the Nushagak Fish and Game Advisory Committee October meeting.

The proposal seeks to “allow the use of a snowmachine … to position a caribou, wolf, or wolverine for harvest, and caribou, wolves, and wolverines may be shot from a stationary snowmachine.”

ADF&G area wildlife management biologist Neil Barten pointed out that under current regulations, “a snowmachine may be used to position hunters to select individual wolves for harvest in 17, but it is not legal to use a snowmachine to position wolves, wolverine, or caribou.”

Most of the focus was on caribou, and changing the regs from allowing positioning of the hunter to positioning the animal, known better as chasing them down, did not have the support of ADF&G or USFWS biologists in the room.

Barten pointed out the state’s disapproval was mainly tied to how chasing practices could harm caribou, which often – and especially on the Nushagak Peninsula – travel in small herds.

“You know it’s one thing with a wolf or wolverine, but with caribou that tend to hang out in groups, and you try to position a caribou, you could be affecting a lot of animals,” he said.

Units 22, 23, and 26(A), in the vast expanse of north and northwest Alaska, do allow for positioning these animals for harvest.

AC chairman Frank Woods pointed out that chasing caribou is already common practice locally.

“The intent [with proposal 148] is to legalize what we’re doing already,” he said.

The discussion never drifted far from talking about Nushagak Peninsula caribou. Several of the committee members, plus the biologists and enforcement, agreed that many hunters do ride hard to catch up with the fleet-footed herds in the winter.

Woods said he supports proposal 148 because it will help force some clarity on the rules and bring more hunters into compliance, or bring the rules into compliance with hunters.

“I think this is a step in the right direction, that we ought to bring this forward to the Board of Game, saying ‘ok, here’s the rules, let’s educate on the rules on fair chase, illegal chase, harassment, wounding,’ and let’s go from there,” he said.

AC member Dan Dunaway did not support the proposal, at least as it extended to caribou, again with a focus on the Peninsula herd.

“It was my impression they already are chased way too much, and I think this would open the door more,” he said. “I’d be inclined to support it for wolf and wolverine, but I also would sure like to hear from what the Refuge and enforcement folks have to say on this.”

The Togiak Refuge staff and enforcement were not at all supportive of legalizing chasing caribou. Speaking to the committee, they said that there is already too much chasing them down in the spring, when cows are pregnant and the animals are their most vulnerable. The added stress and strain, the biologists said, would eventually take a big toll on the small herd. As to hunting ethics, enforcement officers said they are currently finding too many dead caribou that were likely shot at wildly during a chase and not tracked.

Vice chairman Joe Chythlook took issue with the pushback. He helped see that herd established on the Peninsula in 1988 for the purpose of providing meat for local residents, and said authorities should not interfere too much with how the harvest occurs.

“The intent was to hunt caribou so people in the area could have red meat,” Chythlook said. “And then to have people that come from somewhere else and say ‘well, this is the way it should be’, without giving enough credence to understanding why people have lived in this area for many years. We take advice from a lot of you folks, and we’ve lived with it for a long time,” he said, as he and Togiak NWR supervisory biologist Pat Walsh sparred in some tense back-and-forth.

Woods pointed to the need to clarify the rules and educate hunters as a good reason to get proposal 148 in front of the Board of Game with the Nushagak AC’s backing, which he was able to secure.

The same proposal came up to the federal subsistence Regional Advisory Council, and the USFWS Office of Subsistence Management recommended supporting it.

“The changes would ensure that Federally qualified subsistence users are provided the opportunity to use snowmachines as an efficient and effective means to harvest caribou, wolves, and wolverines during the winter months in Unit 17. The changes would have little to no effect on hunting behavior, and any changes in the population status of caribou, wolves, and wolverines are anticipated to continue to be addressed through season and bag limits,” OSM staff wrote.

The RAC, however, did not support WP18-24 (Nukwak’s proposal in federal form), though it’s not clear why. Dan Dunaway, who also sits on the RAC, made a motion to amend the language from positioning the animal to positioning the hunter, and the RAC vote fell apart.

The Board of Game will sort out the concept in February when it meets in Dillingham. or 907.842.5281