By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

State loses challenge to special COVID-era hunt for Kake residents


November 15, 2023 | View PDF

A federal judge in Anchorage has ruled that U.S. government officials did not overstep the law when they allowed an emergency hunt near Kake during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision, published Nov. 3 by Judge Sharon Gleason, is the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between the state and federal officials over who has the authority to regulate subsistence hunting and fishing on public lands in Alaska.

Gleason is also overseeing a separate but unrelated lawsuit by the federal government against the state over management of Kuskokwim River subsistence salmon fishing, and the verdict in the emergency hunt in Kake could shed light on how Gleason interprets the fishing case.

In her decision, Gleason concluded that the Federal Subsistence Board was within its rights to open an emergency deer and moose hunt near Kake when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted rural food supplies.

The hunt, which successfully distributed deer and moose meat to 135 households in Kake, was authorized under a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, ANILCA, that requires federal land managers to prioritize subsistence hunting and fishing by rural residents.

Alaska’s constitution forbids treating rural and urban subsistence hunters differently, so the Alaska Department of Fish and Game filed suit in 2020 against the decision to allow the hunt for Kake residents.

Gleason previously declined to issue an order preventing other, similar hunts, and in 2021, she ruled that the issue was moot because the Kake hunt had concluded. But the state appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Gleason should consider the merits of the issue because an emergency hunt could happen again.

That left Gleason to hear further arguments, leading to her Nov. 3 decision.

At the heart of the issue, Gleason said, was the state’s contention that nothing in ANILCA gave the federal subsistence board the authority to open a hunt when the state had closed a season. “The state maintains that it ‘cannot effectively manage wildlife populations if the federal government goes beyond what Congress authorized and continues to open seasons all the time,” Gleason wrote.

But Gleason noted that a federal regulation, in place for more than 30 years, allows the subsistence board to “‘immediately open or close public lands for the taking of fish and wildlife for subsistence uses’ in an emergency situation.”

That regulation is valid, Gleason said, because Congress specifically allowed the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to write regulations needed to enforce the parts of ANILCA that deal with hunting and fishing.

The judge wrote that the Federal Subsistence Board “did not exceed its statutory authority” under ANILCA “when it opened an emergency subsistence hunt for the Organized Village of Kake (OVK) at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic for public safety reasons, when it delegated the authority to open emergency hunts to local federal land managers, and when it delegated to the OVK the limited authority to choose who would participate in the emergency hunt for the benefit of the community of Kake and how the meat would be distributed.”

The Alaska Department of Law, representing the Department of Fish and Game, has not decided whether to appeal Gleason’s verdict.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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