Questions surrounding Supreme Court decision mean no federal officers patrolling Lower Kuskokwim

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is managing the federal waters of the lower Kuskokwim River during the 2019 king salmon run. (Graphic courtesy of Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge)

A U.S. Supreme Court decision is impacting the enforcement of fishing regulations on the Kuskokwim River. For the first time in at least seven years, no federal wildlife officers are patrolling the lower Kuskokwim River during king salmon season. 

The Department of the Interior chose to withhold federal officers following a decision in March by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Sturgeon v. Frost, the high court ruled in favor of moose hunter John Sturgeon, who was driving a hovercraft through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve when the National Park Service stopped him and ordered him off of his hovercraft. State law allows hovercrafts in Alaska, but the National Park Service does not allow them on federal lands.

Sturgeon’s attorneys argued that it’s up to the state to decide what kind of transportation can be used in Alaska’s navigable waterways through federal lands under ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The court agreed and ruled unanimously in favor of Sturgeon. The State of Alaska celebrated. Gov. Mike Dunleavey called the decision “an important moment for Alaska’s sovereignty.” 

While the ruling contains language leaving federal subsistence fishery jurisdiction in place through federal lands in Alaska, authorities now say that they are not sure they have the authority to enforce it on the lower Kuskokwim, where the river passes through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge manager Ray Born says that the Trump administration has decided to put the issue on hold pending clarification.

“Based on the Sturgeon decision,” Born said, “the Department of the Interior has decided not to send any refuge officers out on the river until we resolve what that Supreme Court decision means.”

In other words, they haven’t decided whether the landmark Katie John ruling, on which federal subsistence fishing regulation is based, allows federal authorities to enforce it. About 200 miles of the lower river falls within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. This year, like several years before, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken over management of the king salmon fishery in these federal waters. That management situation remains in place, but for now it’s just Alaska Wildlife Troopers patrolling the lower river for the first time in seven years during king salmon season.

Steve Heimel with KYUK contributed to this report.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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