State and federal officials apologize to Alaska Natives for effects of bird regulations

White Fronted Goose (Flickr photo courtesy of Alaska Region Fish and Wildlife Service)

State and federal wildlife officials have apologized to Alaska Natives for the enforcement of migratory bird regulations that failed to consider the effects on subsistence practices.

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The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the joint apology Thursday for the consequences of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibited the spring and summer harvests of migratory birds and their eggs during the 1960s and 1970s.

Greg Siekaniec is the regional director for the Alaska Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said he was thankful for Native groups for “educating” the departments about how they were affected by these regulations.

“It’s because of you and your elders that we are publicly acknowledging this history, and we’ve been given the opportunity to heal from past mistakes,” Siekaniec said.

Officials say the prohibition caused Alaska Natives to lose an important food source, causing many to hunt illegally to feed their families. The law was changed in 1997.

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten says the regulations were misguided.

“We got it wrong,” Cotten said. “We regret that. We caused harm. We’re happy that that’s being resolved.”

The officials made the apology at a meeting of a migratory bird management council that has representation from the state and federal groups, and Native groups. Officials from the Native groups said they were grateful for the apology.

But they also said there’s still work to do to loosen federal regulations so that they better align with Native subsistence traditions. Jennifer Hooper is natural resources director at a Bethel-based village organization.

“In our region, there’s several villages that are very strong in their beliefs in how regulated and how pressured they are to fit into, you know, this Western system of management,” Hooper said.

Hooper said there’s still some dissatisfaction with an annual 30-day hunting closure to protect nesting birds. That’s because the dates of the 30-day closure are the same across her whole Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region, even though different parts of that area might have different needs and nesting patterns.

“It’s not a one size fits all system. So, out on the coast, their appropriate 30-day closure may be this timeframe, but then more Interior, it was two weeks before that or two weeks later,” Hooper said.

Hooper says Native organizations are trying to raise more young Alaskans to help fill some of the jobs at the agencies that regulate subsistence hunting.

Alaska’s Energy Desk’s Nathaniel¬†Herz contributed to this report.¬†