Hunters up in arms until spring bear closure rescinded

Apr 2, 2020

Gov. Mike Dunleavy reversed a decision banning Alaska resident spring bear hunting Thursday.
Credit Jenny Neyman/KDLL

Alaska hunters spent an unhappy 24 hours reeling from an announcement that all spring bear hunting would be closed through May 31.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision was released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 5 p.m. April 1. The emergency order states says the decision is meant to prevent travelers from bringing the coronavirus to rural communities, which do not have adequate health care resources to deal with an outbreak.

Ted Spraker, chair of the Alaska Board of Game, said the decision is out of the board’s hands.

“None of this is a biological issue. All of this is just a coronavirus, people issue,” Spraker said. “Normally, the governor does not get involved in wildlife management issues. That’s what he has the Board of Game and the commissioner for, and all the Fish and Game staff. This was more public safety than game management.”

Spraker said he understands the reasoning for closing nonresident bear hunting this spring, because there isn’t a way for hunters to get to the field. Nonresidents aren’t supposed to be coming to Alaska with the current travel restrictions. Even if someone did get here, they would have to self-isolate for 14 days. Nonresidents aren’t allowed to hunt brown bears on their own in Alaska, they have to go with a licensed guide or a resident relative so they couldn’t count hunting camp as isolation.

Current restrictions on in-state travel also make it so Alaska residents can’t take a commercial flight to, say, Kodiak or the Alaska Peninsula, which are two of the most popular brown bear hunting areas.

The part where it gets tricky is in banning all bear hunting, black and brown, even when it’s solo hunting and even when it’s near or actually in your own back yard.

“I shot a nice brown bear in my yard last year. Under this new provision, that’s not legal. One of the examples I used to the director when I was talking to him, ‘I go behind a locked gate, I usually hunt by myself, I never see a soul. I lock the gate when I leave and that’s it.’ How can you say that’s an issue? And I’m not the only one in Alaska that does that, there’s a lot of us,” Spraker said.

Further confusing matters, the emergency order states that, “All subsistence bear hunts will remain open as a way for residents to have an opportunity to fill freezers and provide for families.”

The state of Alaska has a subsistence priority in game management, so there’s no legal gymnastics involved in closing general hunting and allowing subsistence. But functionally, given the mandates on travel restrictions, the order creates conflict between restricting in-state travel and allowing subsistence.

Most areas of the state are open to subsistence hunting, except the most populated areas, Spraker said.

“All Alaskans are subsistence hunters — everyone. Now, if you don’t live in a subsistence area, you can’t claim a subsistence hunt,” he said. “The only place that’s not a subsistence area, there’s a Fairbanks non-subsistence area, around Anchorage and most of the Kenai. But you and I could go down to Nanwalek and Port Graham, because that is a state-recognized subsistence area, we could go down there even with this closure and hunt black bears. We can’t hunt them here because we’re in a non-subsistence area.”

The current mandate banning in-state travel includes an exception to allow travel for subsistence purposes. With the closure of general bear hunts but allowance for subsistence, residents of Anchorage, Fairbanks and most of the Kenai Peninsula couldn’t hunt near their own communities but could travel to areas where subsistence hunting is allowed — pretty much the rest of the state.

In that case, why ban resident hunting in the first place? Spraker says those issues were discussed Wednesday evening and Thursday.  

“I think people just started looking at this thing and said, ‘We to think about this all day today and put together something,’” he said.

His phone was ringing off the hook with hunters and guides who were not happy about the closure.

“And the public has been extremely vocal today. I got off the phone last night at 9 o’clock. My phone rang this morning at 6:30, it started over again,” he said. 

At 5 p.m. Thursday, Fish and Game posted another announcement that Alaska residents would still be allowed to participate in spring bear hunts.

In his daily press briefing, the governor said Alaskans will have to abide by social distancing mandates when hunting and that general hunting is still not recognized as a valid reason to travel between communities in state. If you can get to your hunting area via your own vehicle — boat, plane or otherwise, fine. But don’t travel with other people unless you can keep them six feet away. 

Thursday’s statement says more information will be issued soon on how to conduct hunts in the context of COVID-19 mandates.

Spraker says the Board of Game is tentatively scheduled to meet via teleconference at 1:30 p.m. April 10.

“We are trying to do our best to recoup some of the losses. I mean this virus thing, it’s not anybody’s fault. We’re all trying to cope with it and, as far as being good customer service to hunters, the department is trying their best to accommodate folks in any way they can,” Spraker said. 

One proposal is to move the limited-entry draw permits forward to a future season for hunters that will not be able to use them this spring. Spraker said the board will take written testimony before the meeting.