Unprecedented summer heat sparks caribou, climate concerns for Bristol Bay Subsistence Council

Bristol Bay Subsistence Council Chair Molly Chythlook and member Nanci Morris Lyon (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

During board reports at the Bristol Bay Regional Subsistence Advisory meeting last week, all members expressed concern for subsistence resources in the region following this year’s hot, dry summer.

“It’s unprecedented warm weather. It was a long season for sunscreen,” said Frank Woods, a council member from Dillingham. “It created a lot of concern for wildlife, but I think more importantly it raised the bar for everybody paying attention.” 

Frank Woods pointed out that the heat shifted the timing of subsistence activities, like when moose hunting was most productive.

“Not only our hunting and fishing seasons are affected, but also when and how we harvest, I think, are important,” he said. “When moose started getting into rut and moving around is when they actually started becoming more successful.”

Billy Trefon, a member from Nondalton, described how the heat caused more glacial melt-off around Lake Clark. That run-off brought more silt into the lake, turning it milky and opaque and making it nearly impossible for people and animals to fish. 

“At the lake it was milky right up to the shore,” Trefon said. “You can’t even see three feet off the shore because of the melting. So a lot of our animals… struggled to survive. Mostly the birds, because they couldn’t see the fish to survive.”

During the meeting, the council voted to support four of five regional proposals. It opposed one statewide proposal.

The board unanimously supported allowing hunters to shoot caribou from a stationary snow machine. A major incentive to support the proposal was to align federal regulations with state law. Members Frank Woods and Dan Dunaway both said the change would create more continuity across state and federal land regulations. Nanci Morris Lyon said it would “clarify a tool that has been in the toolbox.” The Curyung Tribal Council and the Lake Clark Subsistence Resource Commission supported it as well. 

Gayla Hoseth is the director of natural resources at the Bristol Bay Native Association and second chief of the Curyung Tribal Council. Hoseth pointed out that using equipment to position animals was a traditional way of hunting. 

“The snow machine has just taken the place of the snow shoes and the dog teams, and… that’s where we’re at today,” she said.  

Fish and Game remained neutral on the proposal, but wildlife management biologist Lauren Watine cautioned that the Mulchatna caribou herd has declined sharply since 2016. At that point, it numbered around 27,000. Now, it’s a mere 13,500.

“The department is concerned that this method will likely lead to high levels of disturbance resulting in increased energetic demands at important times for the caribou. Especially if the same groups of animals are being hunted on a daily basis,” Watine said. 

The Federal Subsistence Board voted Nov. 5 to pass a temporary special action reducing the bag limit for caribou on federal lands from two to one. In units 18, 19A and 19B, it went a step further, restricting the bag limit to one bull. The reduction mirrors the state’s emergency order, passed in August, reducing the bag limit from two caribou to one on state lands. 

Discussion of the Mulchatna caribou herd continued the second day of the meeting. Opinions on management ranged widely. In a letter to the Bristol Bay advisory committee, the Western Interior Alaska regional council recommended that the federal and state winter hunts be closed completely. Council chair Jack Reakoff suggested that high harvest numbers and inaccurate hunting reports, not the health of the herd, were the cause of the decline.

“We need to close the winter hunt now, because one more winter of high harvest on that herd could push this herd to the point where it could be down for decades,” Reakoff said.

The Mulchatna herd’s population numbers have fluctuated greatly over time. But according to Fish and Game, the reasons for herd’s sharp decline in recent years remain unknown.

“It could be something with the age structure of the herd – that could be off-balance,” Watine said. “There could be problems on the landscape, there could be disease, there could be reduced forage available. If you look back at the history of the Mulchatna, when you have over 200,000 animals on the landscape, that has a pretty big impact on what is left for caribou.”

Neither Fish and Game nor the Federal Subsistence Board are currently considering WIA’s request to close state and federal hunts. Still, Frank Woods, one of the council members from Dillingham, expressed deep concern about the recommendation.

“As a user, and person that travels pretty hard and feeds my family throughout what we’re talking about, is it’s frustrating. It is totally frustrating,” Woods said. “I have a hard time – it’s been a board cycle or two since we relaxed the caribou hunting restrictions on users. And now within a year or two years we’re totally cutting it off. That kind of is alarming.”

As its final action, the advisory council moved to support two requests by the Curyung Tribal Council. It agreed to write a letter endorsing the Department of Interior’s critiques of the proposed Pebble Mine’s draft environmental review. The advisory council also agreed to recommend evaluating Pebble’s impacts on subsistence users. 

The federal subsistence board will hold its wildlife regulatory meeting to vote on the proposals in April 2020.

Here’s how the regional proposals fared:

  • Proposal WP20-26 – SUPPORT: Requests that Federally qualified subsistence users be allowed to use snowmachines to position wolves, and wolverines for harvest on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in Units 9B, 9C, 17B, and 17C, provided the animals are not shot from a moving snowmachine. 
  • Proposal WP20-27 – SUPPORT: Requests a unit-specific regulation for Unit 17 allowing use of snowmachine to assist in the taking of a caribou and allowing caribou to be shot from a stationary snowmachine, using the regulatory language adopted by the Alaska Board of Game in February 2018.
  • Proposal WP20-28/29 – SUPPORT: WP20-28 requests that the bull moose season in Unit 17A be extended by 5 days, from Aug. 25-Sept. 20 to Aug. 25-Sept. 25.  WP20-29 requests the addition of an Aug. 25-Sept. 25 antlerless moose season in Unit 17A.
  • Proposal WP20-30 – OPPOSE: Requests that the Alaska hare season in Unit 9 be shortened from a year round season to Nov. 1-Jan 31, and that the harvest limit be reduced from no limit to 1 per day and 4 annually.
  • Proposal WP20-31 – SUPPORT: Requests that the harvest limit for ptarmigan in Unit 9 be decreased from 20 ptarmigan per day/40 in possession to 10 ptarmigan per/20 in possession and that the harvest season be shortened from Aug. 10-Apr. 30 to Aug. 10-last day of February.

Statewide proposal:

  • Proposal WP20-30 – OPPOSE: Request implementing a statewide requirement that traps and snares be marked with either the trapper’s name or State identification number.
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