Board of Game Chair shares how Bristol Bay changed his approach to wildlife management

Feb 26, 2021

Larry Van Daele was named chair in January.  His membership on the board expires this summer, and he won't be reappointed. Van Daele talks about his time in Southwest Alaska and the history of a crucial caribou hunt.

Larry Van Daele takes a break from a survey flight with Tom Tucker. 1992.
Credit Courtesy of Larry Van Daele

Larry Van Daele has worked as a biologist in Alaska for four decades, with the 34 years, and on the Board of Game for four. He spent eight of those years in Bristol Bay, from 1990 - 1998.

“Dillingham was the highlight of my career," he said. "I got started with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1981 as a volunteer and then a technician.”

Van Daele grew up in a military family, and they moved frequently over the course of his childhood.

“I’m not from anywhere," he said. "My dad was in the Air Force and we moved every three years, so Alaska is my chosen hometown.”

As chairman, Van Daele runs the Board of Game meetings. This winter, the board decided to delay its schedule by a year because of logistical complications from the pandemic.

Larry Van Daele gives an apple and a backrub to a bear at Washington State University. The bear was captive and raised to tolerate humans
Credit Courtesy of Larry Van Daele

Over the course of his career, Van Daele also worked in Anchorage and Kodiak, where he lives now. As a biologist, he specialized in brown bears and caribou.

Now, caribou management is on the table again. In the 1990s, the Mulchatna herd in Southwest Alaska was growing rapidly.

“It went from about 80,000 animals to over 200,000 during the time I was there,” he said.

But it has declined severely in recent years. Surveys now show the Mulchatna herd hovers around 13,500 — meaning it has shrunk by over 90% since then. Hunting for the herd is currently closed on state and federal lands.

On the Board of Game, Van Daele faces pressing questions about the next management steps for the Mulchatna herd — and the board will face a question of whether the hunt will open this summer and fall.

He said it will work with the Tribal, state and federal governments to make some tough decisions. The Board will hold a special meeting on March 18 to address proposals that must be reauthorized annually.

“The question we have now as far as the people are concerned is, do you allow just a few folks to get the caribou? Or do you completely shut it off?" he said. "By completely shutting it off, you send a very strong message to everyone that we’re all in this together, and we all need to do our part to save these animals so that they can be around for future generations.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could give permits to a local entity, like a Tribal council, to manage a limited hunt only on federal land. The Board of Game could also offer a state hunting opportunity that takes into account traditional use, called a Tier 2 subsistence hunt.

Larry Van Daele brands a boreal owl with his son in Dillingham. 1992.
Credit Courtesy of Larry Van Daele

Van Daele said his time in Bristol Bay shaped his approach to wildlife management. He arrived in Dillingham in 1990, where he said he learned how to work as a biologist in the communities.

“The Yup’ik folks out in the villages, the agency folks there in town — they taught me how to be a biologist, and taught me all the stuff I learned in college was kind of neat to have as a baseline, but the real world was somewhat different, and you needed to look at the world that way,” he said.

During his time here, Van Daele said, the most important thing he learned was to recognize the traditional Yup’ik approach to management.

“Many hours in a maqi," he laughed. "That’s what I learned, a lot of steam baths and sweating it out, and having people tell me what the right way of thinking is.”

He said the Qayassiq Walrus Commission crystallized the difference for him between the linear western and more holistic Yup’ik approaches to wildlife management.

Native people traditionally hunted walrus on Round Island — in Yup’ik, Qayassiq. It’s part of a cluster of islands by Togiak. In 1960, the state designated those islands as a game sanctuary, and for three decades no walrus hunting was allowed.

In the early 1990s Bristol Bay hunters petitioned the Board of Game to allow a subsistence walrus hunt on Round Island. Four years later, the Board granted a limited hunt. The Qayassiq commission was formed to help guide management of the traditional hunt.

“In dealing with a resource that has been so important to the people of Bristol Bay, and yet it’s a state wildlife sanctuary where folks were not even allowed to go after the ’60s," he said. "It was a very bright line between the western way of thinking about managing walrus, and the Yup’ik way of thinking about managing walrus.”

Larry Van Daele puts a radio collar on a Kodiak bear. 2016.
Credit Courtesy of Larry Van Daele

Van Daele said the Board of Game relies on advisory committees for local information about what’s happening on the ground. As the climate changes, local input is particularly important.

In Bristol Bay, it’s changed dramatically since the ’90s. A warming climate impacts species habitat. Warmer temperatures also affect how people live off the land, like when they hunt in the fall.

“It’s still warm, and the meat is going to sour if you don’t do it just right," he said. "Or times when they’d go across the Muklung River, or some other river, to go on a winter hunt, and now snowgoes can’t go past that because it’s open a lot later than it used to be. So there’s definitely been a change in the past 25 years that’s impacting the way people use the wildlife and what the wildlife have to use.”

Governor Walker appointed Van Daele as a Board of Game member in 2017. His term expires this summer. Governor Dunleavy has appointed David Weisz of Wasilla to replace him.

The Board of Game is slated for a special meeting on March 18. It will consider proposals on the reauthorization of antlerless moose hunts and brown bear tag fee exemptions. It also plans to discuss the Mulchatna caribou hunt. Public comments are due March 5.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.