Earlier this summer the Kuskokwim had a disastrous run of Chinook, prompting the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to close the fishery. The locals were unhappy about it and tribal leaders ordered the men to fish regardless of the closure. What resulted was a tense standoff between wildlife officials and local fishermen. How the whole thing went down rubbed me the wrong way and I’ve been thinking about it all summer.
This last weekend, while visiting my parents in Palmer, I began perusing old copies of the Delta Discovery and found some articles early in the closure and right before the standoff. On Wednesday, June 20, Mike Williams wrote an open letter in the Delta Discovery addressed to Chairman Watson and William Naneng. In that letter, he spoke about the closure and how people agreed with it thus far. He asked for an opening to get some fish, and that he did not want to see bad feelings or civil disobedience develop. He also mentioned something that perked my interest.
Mr. Williams asked ”what’s wrong with partnering with the Tribal Governments in helping with the managing of our fish?”
As fate would have it, the next publication I browsed was Field and Stream’s July 2012 issue. As I browsed through gun surveys (Alaska’s “state gun” is the Ruger Stainless Model 77 .30/06, by the way), I came upon an interesting article which detailed Wisconsin’s deer problem, and a solution implemented by Governor Scott Walker. Wisconsin is a huge deer hunting state. In 2000, hunters harvested 615,293 deer (in contrast to the 6,000 to 8,000 moose harvested in Alaska annually). In 2002, harvested deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), which prompted officials to take action. In 2003, they put a bounty on deer with CWD, and by 2009 the harvest dropped to 330,000. In 2010, then-candidate Walker made deer a campaign issue. The trust between the hunters and the Department of Natural Resources broke down, leaving the hunters with the impression that DNR mismanaged the deer population.
Does this scenario sound a bit familiar? This story is strikingly similar to what is what is playing out on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta with the Chinook fishery.
What Gov. Walker did in Wisconsin is markedly different than the approach we have seen, so far, here in Alaska. Walker appointed Dr. James Kroll to a position he named “Whitetail Deer Trustee.” He quickly became known as the “Deer Czar.” Dr. Kroll reports directly to the governor and the DNR was ordered to fully cooperate with Dr. Kroll in regards to the deer conservation. However, the approach Dr. Kroll takes concentrated not only on the DNR, but rather on the hunters themselves.
The team Dr. Kroll assembled started with David Guyn, who created the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) in Mississippi, and Gary Alt of Pennsylvania, who worked with hunters during the “Deer Wars” in Pennsylvania in which he wore a Kevlar vest when addressing hunters. Both programs are widely regarded as successful deer management programs. The approach utilizes the deer hunters in information gathering, taking increased feedback from the hunters, and making them straight-up partners in conservation. Dr. Kroll says “it’s pretty hard for a landowner to argue with data he’s collected himself.”
What Dr. Kroll is trying to do is shift the mindset of the hunters to the idea that they are not just passive consumers in this process; they have a responsibility for conservation.
The deer situation and the salmon situation share a couple things in common. First and foremost, there is a problem. Second, there is a rift between the people in charge of managing the fishery and those who use it. Neither one should be an issue.
In Wisconsin, the deer hunters have a lot of political clout. In Alaska, the fishermen and women of the Y-K delta hold very little political clout. This is a pretty key difference between these two situations. The other one being that managing deer is much different than managing salmon.
The autochthonous people of the Y-K Delta have a vested interest in conservation. They, out of everyone else, want to ensure the salmon return year after year. The importance of the salmon is both protein, and a way of life as far back as oral history goes. I think we can all appreciate how important food is to tradition, culture, and even identity. As it stands now, the people feel disenfranchised from the process of deciding when it is OK to fish and when it is not.
In the most recent Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) newsletter, Carolina Behe addresses the same issue. She mentions some of the potential stressors on the fishery – bycatch, commercial fishing, changes in temperature, pollution, and increases and decreases in water levels can all potentially impact the Chinook runs. Carolina outlines how, in the current management scheme, the burden of conservation is put largely on the fishermen and women, both subsistence and sport. Carolina calls for a participatory approach to fisheries management. If the call had to be made to close a fishery, Carolina argues that this approach would be empowering – not that feeling of faux-participatory helplessness that usually carries the day.
I feel like we can learn from this, this regulatory scheme fits both our self-sufficient identity as Alaskans, as well as our predominantly conservative ideology.
We should move forward from the top-down regulatory scheme we currently have. Sure, the “deer czar” approach is top down, but Dr. Kroll served his post, as it related to policy, with a bottom-up approach. Yes, we have made progress on giving locals more of a voice, but more needs to be done. Local government is small government: When We the People are the ones making the decisions, then we have only ourselves to answer to.
Models exist, from Wisconsin and other conservative states, where empowering the end-users of the species creates an atmosphere of trust and understanding. If we give the folks of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta a tangible voice in fisheries management, and utilize them in concrete ways, then fishery closures will be more palatable; more understood. This model could be the pilot for reforming other regulatory schemes in Alaska and be an effective tool for reducing the size of our government. We currently have people within the state calling for something similar – why can’t we do this?
Since I have read the article in Field and Stream they have since updated the situation on their website. Some of the recommendations that Kroll makes I think are notable for our situation as well:
- Do away with population goals and estimates at the DMU (deer management-unit) level…And replace it with a simplified goal statement of increase, stabilize or decrease population density.
- Establish a Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), which will put biologists on the ground with private landowners to help them with management on their properties.
- Involve the public more in data collection, management and input, give the Conservation Congress a more active role in decisions at the local level.
- Improve habitat assessment and range evaluation, especially on public lands, and form a Young Forest Initiative Task Force
- Continue research on predator populations and their effect on deer herds.
Again, deer populations are much different than salmon ones, much of their life at sea is currently out of our control to regulate. But I think as Alaskans we are creative enough to see potential solutions for our own problems with salmon here at home. It’s up to us, whether or not we’re up to the task.
And I hear there’s an election coming.
You can consider this my open letter to Governor Parnell, because in my humble opinion this seems right up his alley.