Board of Game to consider subsistence use protections for the Nushagak Peninsula caribou herd
People around the Nushagak Peninsula have subsisted on caribou for thousands of years. Caribou populations in the area have declined, but the herd was reintroduced in the late 1980s. Now, the state’s Division of Subsistence wants the Board of Game to protect subsistence uses of that herd.
The Nushagak Peninsula caribou herd ranges across more than 400 square miles of tundra, streams and ponds on a piece of land that juts into Bristol Bay. For thousands of years, people in the area have subsisted on caribou in the region.
Now, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence is asking the statewide Board of Game to place additional protections on the herd.
This week, the board will consider a proposal to designate the Nushagak Peninsula caribou herd as a resource culturally and traditionally used for subsistence. If it does, the herd will be protected by law, which ensures that subsistence is prioritized above commercial and sport uses.
In order to make that decision, the board will consider eight criteria, said Bronwyn Jones, the southwest subsistence resource specialist for the state’s Division of Subsistence.
Reliance on the herd
As part of the proposal, Jones and her team provided information about how the Nushagak herd meets those criteria, which include sharing of intergenerational knowledge, efficient harvesting and cost, and how the population fits into subsistence in the area.
The team also had to determine a pattern of use and reliance on the population over a long period of time.
“How people in the Nushagak Peninsula have used this caribou population since it was established, and also prior to its establishment, before it was kind of wiped out in the early 1900s,” Jones said.
The Division of Subsistence cited documentation of people using caribou in that area for more than 2,000 years. Historically, a large number of caribou lived along the coast of the Bering Sea, from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound.
The state says that in the western portion of the Mulchatna Caribou herd’s range, archaeological evidence points to caribou hunting since prehistoric times in the mountains southeast of the Kuskokwim River. That includes parts of land that now falls in Unit 17.
Along salmon streams northwest of Togiak Bay, remains of caribou are common in Norton tradition sites dating back 2,500 years. Local traditional knowledge and oral history suggests caribou were always significant to people residing in the area.
“We had done some traditional ecological knowledge interviews about historical caribou uses,” Jones said. “People talked about stories that they had heard of people using caribou bones for nets, just all the different uses of caribou that had been in the community that they lived in before and no longer were.”
For example, the state Division of Subsistence worksheet for the proposal points to a 2008 study in which the division interviewed Elders in Togiak, who described traditional uses of caribou.
“Before there were rifles, they used the caribou rib bone for part of the “spear” because caribou rib bone doesn’t break,” said one Elder. “At one location, when the walrus were hauling out, they would go up to the one farthest from the water when he was asleep and drive the caribou spear into the walrus near where the collar bone is sticking out, to try to reach the heart to make it bleed.”
Fluctuating caribou populations
Caribou populations can fluctuate dramatically. In 2019, around 700 animals made up the Nushagak Peninsula herd. But after managers liberalized harvest, in part to protect lichen cover, the numbers dropped to around 250, and the hunt was severely restricted. Last summer the herd was estimated at just under 300 animals.
In the late 1800s, the region’s caribou population declined.
In 1979, a researcher with the Division of Subsistence recorded an Elder in Togiak who said caribou disappeared from the area in the early 1900s. He reported hearing stories from his Elders in the men’s community house about wolves driving out caribou, and talked about how Elders would talk and sing about past hunts.
Jones said that when Nushagak Peninsula’s herd declined, residents of the region didn’t stop hunting caribou — they just traveled farther to do so.
“Just because caribou were no longer available doesn't mean that the traditional use was gone,” she said. “It once existed, and people kind of adjusted their ways. But now the opportunity is back because the herd has been transplanted, and — well, available to harvest until recent years anyways.”
The Board of Game did make a “customary and traditional” determination for caribou in the area for subsistence in 1988 in units 9A and B, 17 and 18. That was primarily for the Mulchatna herd.
But that year, the state and the federal government teamed up with Tribes, municipalities and village corporations in the area to reintroduce caribou to the peninsula, and transplanted around 140 caribou from the Northern Alaska Peninsula Herd to the Nushagak Peninsula. That provided a new resource for people in Togiak, Twin Hills, Manokotak, Aleknagik and Dillingham.
In the mid-1990s, the Federal Subsistence Board found that those communities had customary and traditional uses for the Nushagak caribou. But the state never made a designation for that herd.
The Mulchatna herd has declined drastically in the past several years, which Jones said sparked this proposal.
“I think to document the importance of each herd separately, and un-lump the Nushagak from the Mulchatna is important,” Jones said. “When the Nushagak are back up to optimal harvest, people can just go ahead and use them again for subsistence while the Mulchatna caribou herd is unavailable while they're trying to figure out what's happening there and waiting for that herd to recover again.”
Board decision could set protections for subsistence uses of the herd
If the board does make a positive finding for the Nushagak caribou, nothing concrete would change — for now.
“Basically, we are documenting that there is a positive use finding it is a subsistence resource that’s depended on, and so the next step will be for the board to establish an ANS, or an amount reasonably necessary for subsistence,” Jones said.
That’s a range of harvest numbers the board will consider to determine whether subsistence needs are being met. Once that harvest range is established, people can reference it when discussing their subsistence needs and spur changes to the hunt for that herd, like moving it to a different tier or limiting registration hunts.
“That's basically what this [customary and traditional determination] is — the first step towards just being able to protect subsistence uses of the resource,” she said.
Jones and her colleagues also submitted a proposal for the board to apply the same designation to the Unimak caribou herd in Unit 10, which comprises the Aleutian, Unimak and Pribilof islands.
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