An Alaska Native rights group is backing the federal subsistence board’s decision to allow a village in Southeast Alaska to hunt out of season during the pandemic. The Dunleavy administration has challenged that move, which will soon get its day in court.
The Native American Rights Fund is asking the court to intervene on behalf of the Organized Village of Kake which took advantage of the emergency hunt to take two moose and five deer. The tribe distributed the meat in the Kupreanof Island community during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NARF attorney Erin Dougherty Lynch in Anchorage says the state’s legal challenge to special subsistence hunts like Kake’s is part of a larger tug of war between the state and federal managers.
“I would say that the state’s actions are extremely disappointing, and part of a long pattern of fighting Alaska Native subsistence rights in the courts and the press,” she said in an interview.
The Federal Subsistence Board also cited public safety concerns to restrict an area north of the Glenn Highway to local subsistence hunters. The state Department of Fish and Game filed a lawsuit against the feds last month alleging both actions violated federal law.
It’s asking a federal judge for an injunction that would immediately reopen caribou and moose hunting to non-subsistence users.
In filings, it says the subsistence board’s action has hamstrung its responsibility to manage fish and wildlife in the state.
Assistant Attorney General Cheryl Brooking says the state isn’t going after tribal sovereignty but sees discrimination against non-Natives.
“We’ve got a situation where they’ve shown that they’re going to disregard their own guidelines that they don’t have to have any facts that indicate that there’s actually a food security issue,” Brooking said. “And that they’re going to discriminate between whether you’re Native or non-Native.”
Tribe members have testified that it wasn’t just about scarcity — elders needed access to traditional foods including wild game, not just store-bought meat that wasn’t fresh and relatively expensive. Brooking says the state doesn’t see that as reason enough to allow hunting out of season.
“They prefer the wild game, but there wasn’t any shortage,” she said. “The only shortage that they had was paper products and cleaning supplies.”
A federal judge will hear oral arguments from both sides on September 8 whether to grant a preliminary injunction. Attorneys for Sealaska, the region’s Native corporation have also joined the case in support of the federal government and tribes.
This isn’t the first time the state has conflicted with the feds over whose hunting and fishing needs should be prioritized. The state contested a decades-long case regarding subsistence fishing rights along the Copper River.