U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks feedback on new Alaska Native relations policy

a tundra swan
A tundra swan in northern Alaska. (From U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a draft of its Alaska Native relations policy out for public review.

The federal agency says it hopes that the new policy will help improve relationships between federal employees and tribes in Alaska. It’s had a Native American relations policy in place for more than six years, but its Alaska Native-specific policy is still in the works.

“So while the Native American policy applies everywhere, including Alaska, we needed to have these unique considerations,” said Ciisquq Leonetti, an Alaska Native affairs specialist with Fish and Wildlife. “We needed to point out the uniqueness of the subsistence Alaska Native way of life and the impact that the agency has on that.”

Leonetti said that includes taking into account the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The draft policy recognizes the impacts of climate change on Alaska’s landscape. It also mentions the inclusion of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in co-management efforts. The policy will also require Alaska Native relations training and education for Fish and Wildlife employees.

“That is designed to illuminate the beautiful, diverse cultures of Alaska Native people. The current status of the nutritional, and spiritual, and cultural connection to living a subsistence way of life,” Leonetti said. “It is also really important for Alaska Native people to continue that way of life for reasons beyond nutrition.“

The relationship between the agency and Alaska Native people hasn’t always been amicable.

In 2018, Fish and Wildlife and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game apologized for the impact that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act had on subsistence in the 1960s and 1970s, when hunting migratory birds and collecting their eggs in the spring and summer months was prohibited. Many people had to resort to illegally hunting birds for food. The law was changed in 1997. But even today, some people in Western Alaska are still sensitive when it comes to providing information about how and where they hunt for birds.

Elder James Berlin Sr. was born in Nunapitchuk in 1944. He said that prior to statehood, and before Fish and Wildlife set limits, his father kept an eye on their subsistence harvests.

“He watched how much we catch. And if we have enough, he says, ‘It’s time to stop or slow down.’ He had all the control,” Berlin Sr. said.

He and others who rely on subsistence in Southwest Alaska said that system worked. Berlin Sr. didn’t get his first fishing license until he was 16, and that was because the state required it. While he hasn’t read the new federal policy on Alaska Native relations, Berlin Sr. said that both user groups and managers need to communicate better with each other.

“We have to start understanding what the laws are for and why they were created,” he said. “We are the original users of the subsistence fish that we get here on the Kuskokwim, and we have run into a lot of regulations, and we’re still not in harmony with each other.”

Strained relations between federal agencies and Alaska Natives aren’t limited to migratory birds. Leonetti said that improving those relationships is central to developing the policy. Since 2016, she’s worked alongside a 12-member team of representatives from every region of the state, from the North Slope to Cook Inlet, and from Bristol Bay across the Interior. Some members come from tribal governments, others represent Alaska Native organizations and corporations.

“We wanted to make sure every word and every sentence was agreed upon by the entire group. And if it wasn’t, we talked about it until we could agree on the language that made sense for everybody,” Leonetti said.

Fish and Wildlife will accept public comments on the draft policy until Dec. 5. Leonetti expects that it will be signed and included in the agency’s national manual sometime in 2023.

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