Climate variability has brought unique challenges in recent years in rural Alaska. In the fall, warmer weather has been extending into August and September in many parts of the state, a challenge for hunters who seek to harvest and process the animal when it is cooler so the meat will not spoil. During the winter hunt, lack of snow-cover means difficulty and unsafe conditions for hunters who travel by snow machine to access distant moose and caribou. Caribou hunting, which often occurs from late winter to early spring, is made more difficult by early break up. This causes a challenge for managers to ensure that adequate hunting opportunity is provided, especially in rural areas where residents rely on these resources the most. Managers and regulators recognize this challenge and are adjusting. Communities can be part of the process by asking for season adjustments and other mechanisms to increase their hunting opportunity and ultimately their successful harvest.
In the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, hunting for moose and caribou are important activities that meet residents’ food security and cultural needs. Both species are available in most areas. The region is home to several caribou herds, the largest of which is the Mulchatna Caribou Herd. Caribou inhabit the upland areas, while moose are common along the lowland wooded riverine corridors. River corridors are important for hunting in the fall. Many residents use boats to access moose hunting areas, for example along the Nushagak River. Moose are also hunted during winter when the weather is coldest. Travel conditions are good during winter; rivers and lakes are frozen, and access to distant hunting areas via snow machine can be done quickly. Caribou are accessed mainly in the late winter and early spring by traveling overland via snow machine. Each year, caribou are located in different areas. Hunters work together for the success of the hunt by letting other hunters know where the caribou can be found.
Climate variability from year to year complicates this hunting management system. Hunting seasons can be modified on State lands through emergency order by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) area biologist or through a proposal to the Alaska Board of Game. A similar system is in place on Federal lands. In the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, the Federal Subsistence Board can extend seasons; this is often done in collaboration with the State.
Beginning July 1, 2015, the season for the Mulchatna Caribou Herd in Game Management Unit (GMU) 17A was extended from an end date of March 15 to March 31 by the Alaska Board of Game to provide more hunting opportunity for Bristol Bay area residents in response to poor traveling conditions in recent years. Similar conditions persisted in the spring of 2015 and again in 2016. On the Nushagak Peninsula, the caribou herd is increasing; there is a possibility that they will overtake the carrying capacity of the small peninsula. Lack of snow has made it difficult for residents to access caribou from their communities. Federal managers responded by increasing the bag limit for caribou, extending the season, and allowing same day airborne hunting under a federal permit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) also worked with the ADF&G to provide for a state hunt in this area by making a request to the federal subsistence board to remove a federal restriction against non-local hunters. This restriction was lifted and hunters throughout the state of Alaska were eligible from early March through March 31 to hunt caribou in this area. These requests were met at the request of communities working in collaboration with managers.
Similar issues arose for Moose in GMU 17A where poor winter conditions made it difficult for residents to access moose during the December through January winter hunt. During the spring 2015 hunting season, managers, at the request of communities, extended the season into mid-February (beyond the 31day season provided by regulation) to allow more time to access moose. Similar requests were made and accommodated during the spring 2016 season. Additionally, during the February 2015 Board of Game meeting, the Board adopted a proposal to lengthen the winter moose season in Unit 17A to extend through February to accommodate a need for longer seasons since the weather patterns and travel conditions with the traditional seasons were limiting hunt participation. Late or no freeze-up of rivers and lakes and lack of snow pack made traveling difficult and even dangerous. But adapting to climate variability can be negotiated, working collaboratively with area managers and through the citizen-driven Alaska Board of Game process.