Noatak residents speak out in support of caribou closure
The community of Noatak is finding itself at the center of debate over a proposed closure for caribou hunting.
The proposal, brought forth to the Federal Subsistence Board by the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council, would effectively continue the closure currently in place to non-federally qualified caribou hunters on federal public lands in Game Management Unit 23.
That means non-local hunters would not be able to hunt on refuge, national park, or Bureau of Land Management land, for example, which supporters of the closure say will reduce user conflicts and help protect the resource, which is diminishing.
The restriction that's currently in place ends this summer and this one, if approved, would begin July 1 and continue through the end of June next year.
"I'm a subsistence hunter all my life," said Enoch Mitchell, of Noatak, during a public hearing on the proposal earlier this month in Kotzebue. "I'm in favor of the Wildlife Special Action Request 17-03. It is consistent with the Western Arctic Caribou Herd plan. Also, the caribou are still declining. Our caribou also promote food security for our people. It is also a vital food source for all of us that depend on our caribou. The closure on federal land has minimized conflict between users. It has helped us. It has let us better harvest caribou."
The public hearing was just one of three dedicated to the request. The first was held in Nome, the second in Kotzebue, and the final hearing is taking place this week in Utqiagvik.
Several local residents showed up to comment in person in Kotzebue and many more called into the teleconference line from around the Northwest Arctic villages and from other parts of the state.
The commenters were predominantly divided by location. Most of the local and regional speakers were in favor of continuing the closure for non-local hunters, while opposition came from sport hunters, guides, and other non-local hunters from Fairbanks, North Pole, and beyond.
One group that came out in force was the community of Noatak, which said it has seen drastic changes in the accessibility of tuttu as migration patterns have shifted over the years.
"I'm a subsistence caribou hunter all my life here in Noatak. Ever since we had drop offs — sport hunters that are dropped off up our river — we started seeing a decline of caribou close by our village of Noatak," said resident Frank Adams. "When we have drop offs at our place on each side of the river, we see them people walking and disrupting the migration of our caribou which used to come pretty close to our village. Now, we have to travel more than a hundred miles one way to get caribou and not all of us are successful hunters because of the price of gas that we have up here in Noatak. If you don't have a boat and a motor and gas available, which most of us can't afford to waste, we have to stay up the river for two weeks to even get one caribou that would be good for one family. Now that sport hunters are up there disrupting everything .. . it's kind of hard for us to be successful hunters."
Many residents believe the practices of fly-in sport hunters and recreational hunters from outside the area have contributed to the caribou's shifting routes, by scaring them away from their old tracks.
"I've been on a few hunts with my husband and family up the river over the years. In the earlier years it used to be we would be able to come home with caribou for the year and we would see them and all the other hunters would be successful too," said local Grace Adams. "Ever since we started seeing planes up there, it's very hard for the caribou to come down to the river. Everybody knows that. They see planes up there flying left and right during our main hunting time and that puts real hardship on a lot of families in the village."
Noatak resident Janet Mills said she doesn't hunt, but has two daughters and their husbands who hunt and provide for them. She's noticed the caribou are no longer coming as close to the village as they used to, and seem to shy away from the riverbanks.
"I remember a number of years back, when my youngest brother was still alive, and I was preparing him to go out hunting, I was getting things ready for him. I packed like three boxes of groceries and here they just went a few bends upriver. That's how close our migration was years ago," she recalled. "When he came home, he said I packed too much store-bought food; they could have brought more caribou. It's getting hard for everyone here ... This past season, we got one and a half [caribou] because we pooled our money together to get gas, and they got three caribou and they were at camp for one week. That didn't even last all winter. We hope these sport hunters understand that it's vital to us. We eat it every day. Even our grandchildren like the bone marrow and caribou soup. Taikuu for listening."
While many of the non-local hunters who commented said they do hunt for food and use every part of the animal, some Noatak residents said they've encountered trophy hunters who don't have need for the food resource.
"I didn't start hunting until I married my husband 13 years ago. When we started hunting we wouldn't go far, we would just go maybe 10 miles to get a lot of caribou for the village. But, the past five years we've been having to spend about $1,000 to go way upriver to get our caribou meat and we have five kids to support. There's low income jobs in the village. I know we're not supposed to fight over food or anything but it's very critical to our people. We live off that meat," said Eva Wesley. "There was this one year where we stopped by a guy from Pennsylvania and he flagged us down and he told us he got a bull caribou and he had no boat to get it. So, he asked us to get it for him but we didn't have enough gas to bring it back to him so we just harvested his meat. I know most of them guys that come up here come up here to go sport hunting, but us, we live off that meat. So, I hope you understand."
Hunter Percy Wesley echoed Eva's concerns about the cost of finding caribou now that the herd is traveling further from the village. He also noted the disadvantage he thinks some locals have as they must travel by boat or by foot, rather than flying in.
"I've seen firsthand the impact on hunting caribou. I used to spend maybe $200 in fuel to get caribou. Now I've got to spend $1,000 in fuel to go up. It's hard to go by that. That's hard with no jobs in the village to go up and all the hunters out there are dropped off right on the migration routes of the caribou. Each and every migration I know of from growing up, there's hunters dropped off right there in each corridor and not only that, but up in the hills disturbing the caribou from coming down," he said.
A handful of Elders called in to talk about some of the differences they've witnessed over the years, as well.
"I've been hunting since 1960 when I was a young boy and all these years I see lots of caribou all over the river, way up the river, down the river, and by the village of Noatak and I was real proud of it," said Thurston Booth. "Everybody get their own caribou here in Noatak. Everybody put caribou away but now when we have lots of drop offs and guide hunters up here, lots of people that hunt on the river, it's getting pretty hard for us to go up the river and try to get our caribou — our meat for the winter. That's our food. Everybody knows it here in the region that we all have that caribou on our tables every day. We live by that caribou. Now, now for like about 10 years it's hard [to get] our caribou. The numbers are going down. I know because I've been up there on the river a long time...Our numbers are going down and I would support that closure that we have to see the numbers go back up."
With fewer caribou in the area and the higher cost of fuel to travel upriver to find the animals, families and neighbors are finding themselves in a tough spot, several speakers said. Some people have pooled money and done group trips, while others have had to rely more on expensive store-bought food to fill in the gaps, which they say is not sustainable.
"A few years ago, they came home with no caribou and it was real hard that year, very hard to live without our caribou. We had to buy store-bought food and that costs an arm and a leg. One time my sister was looking at the steak, it cost $68, one steak that would feed maybe four people in your home. That's too much for those of us that work and have to buy the food. It's a hardship. So, I support that closure forever. Keep it closed so we could have our food and the migration will continue on like for our ancestors, they never bothered the caribou with planes and they would go on their migration every year. Now it's a big difference," Grace Adams continued. "So, please, keep it closed. Hear our voices. Hear our cries. Thank you."