Climate change speakers stress need for subsistance hunting adaptability

Three Alaska Native subsistence users addressed an audience of national wildlife policy advisers this week about the risks of climate change to subsistence-based communities, what those communities are doing to adapt, and how their adaptations may be helped or hindered by state and federal government.

The Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, a federal advisory group created, according to its website, “to advise the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture on recreational hunting and wildlife resource issues,” met on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kenai Wildlife National Refuge Headquarters. Most of its members are wildlife and game administrators from the Lower 48.

Nationwide policy was emphasized, but National Park Service’s Alaska Native Affairs Liaison Adrienne Fleek was all about Alaska.

Fleek introduced the three speakers from subsistence villages: Ilarion Larry Merculieff from the Bering Sea Island of St.Paul, Stanley Tom, who spoke by phone from the western coastal village of Newtok, and Craig Fleener of the Arctic interior village of Fort Yukon.

Merculieff, a consultant, speaker and former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development gave a long list of climate change effects which he said Native communities are experiencing throughout Alaska. These included shifting tree patterns, land in tundra regions collapsing from permafrost thaw, stronger storm waves due to a loss of sea ice, caribou migrations blocked by lack of river ice, and an increase in diseases and parasites in salmon and seals.

Both Merculieff and Tom spoke about the problem of coastal erosion. A 2004 report by the federal Office of Government Accountability found that four Native Alaskan villages, including Newtok, are “in imminent danger from flooding and erosion.”

Tom said that Newtok, a village of 340 Yup’ik people, which sits at the confluence of the Newtok and Ninglik rivers, was experiencing increased erosion as a result of climate change because the river current was less inhibited by a thinner ice pack during the winter. He estimated the eroding bank of the Ninglik River is 60 to 70 feet from the village. Tom is trying to raise funds to relocate Newtok.

Fleener, a subsistence hunter and Alaska Governor Bill Walker’s special advisor for Arctic Policy, spoke about the need for subsistence hunters to respond to climate-driven changes in game animal populations and behaviors.

“One of the things that got us to where we are today, in terms of living on this landscape, is the ability to adapt,” Fleener said of subsistence communities. “500 years ago, if the moose population was in decline, we easily adjusted to caribou or salmon, or we harvested more ground squirrel or more rabbits. Whatever the situation was, when you didn’t have the resource that you needed or wanted, you simply switched to something else.”

Fleener said that old adaptive solutions are running into modern complications.

“The problem we have nowadays is that … there’s a strange land-ownership pattern in Alaska,” Fleener said. “It’s all checker-boarded, where you have state, tribal, corporation, federal, and municipal — the list goes on and on. And with the conflicting federal and state land ownership patterns, that makes things very difficult. Especially if the seasons are not aligned, or the bag limits are not aligned.”

Fleener said that if regulatory systems can not keep up with the pace of climate change, subsistence users will adjust on their own.

“People do adapt,” Fleener said. “One of the ways they adapt is they shoot things illegally. But we don’t want that if you don’t have an abundant population. But people are going to eat, and they are going to shoot it down.”

Fleener said that for rural subsistence hunters, the alternative to wild game is buying groceries, which in Arctic Alaska are often either prohibitively expensive, or not available. A handout given by Fleek during Fleener’s talk contained photographs of a grocery store shelf in the Arctic village of St. Mary’s in 2014. Gallons of milk were priced at $7.99, packages of Chips Ahoy cookies at $6.99, and bags of Doritos at $7.99.

“We need to sit down and start talking about ideas of adaptation,” Fleener said. “How we can help the people in the Arctic, in the more rural parts of the state — the ones who provide mostly on wild resources — to define a more adaptable method that would allow them to get to the resources that they need more quickly and more readily, and switch from one to the other.”

In an interview after the talk, Fleek said she thought many council members were “really intrigued by the traditional speakers, and what life was like in their communities.”

“I think anytime you have folks from the Lower 48 who get to see and hear visuals of how Alaska’s different, they’re really intrigued,” Fleek said.

For some council members, the talk was an education on Alaska issues such as coastal erosion and the state’s intricate subsistence regulation.

“I learned so much about Alaska,” said Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management Steven Ellis, who had traveled from Arlington, Virginia. “That was worth the trip up just to hear. I want to thank all of you that were part of that.”

Ellis summarized his reaction to the presentations in few words.

“Complex state,” he said. “You have complex issues without that many people.”

Reach Ben Boettger at

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