Native rights group backs Kake in lawsuit over emergency subsistence hunt

Several Alaska Natives work on processing meat in a kitchen.
Kake residents and elders process moose to be distributed among the community. (Photo courtesy of the Organized Village of Kake)

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, and will soon get its day in court.

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) 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 meat was distributed in the 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.

“Really, the state is seeking to disrupt the federal regulatory scheme that has governed subsistence hunting for decades. And, you know, in general, 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.

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,” she said. “And that they’re going to discriminate between whether you’re native or non native.”

Tribal 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.

“The meat wasn’t wild game and 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 Sept. 8th 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.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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