Northwest Arctic Borough pushes for restricting outside hunters over COVID-19 concerns

A caribou in a swampy area with pondss in the background
A caribou from the Western Arctic Herd, (Photo by Jim Dau, courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

On Tuesday, the Northwest Arctic Borough passed a resolution pushing for restrictions on outside hunters, guides, and transports on their lands. It comes in response to concerns from communities over risks of COVID-19 spread. 

Game Management Unit 23 is a chunk of land spanning the Northwest Arctic Borough. In the summer, it becomes a popular spot for Outside hunters looking to snag a caribou. City of Kotzebue attorney Joe Evans says there isn’t just one authority that manages the lands. 

“The status of the land within that game unit is a patchwork of jurisdictional requirements applied by the federal, state, borough and private land managers,” Evans said.

Read more stories of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting rural Alaska

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many rural communities are wary of non-residents, but options are limited for alleviating those concerns. Individual villages have banned non-resident travel outright into their communities, but Evans says it’s harder for the larger governments.

“Neither the borough nor the city [of Kotzebue] has the ability to regulate outside hunters guides, transporters, and outfitters in Unit 23,” Evans said.

Evans says the resolution passed by the Northwest Arctic Borough this week is an effort to work with various government organizations to see what can be done about hunters.

“What the borough and the city have said is with the COVID-19 pandemic, we would ask that the activities in the game unit be limited to local resident subsistence opportunities and closed to outside hunters,” Evans said.

However, some of the tour companies think that safety concerns regarding hunters coming into the region are unfounded.

“Yeah, it’s completely blown out of proportion.” said Brad Saalsaa, owner of Alaska Wilderness Charters and Guiding. His company flies people out to both guided and unguided hunts around Northwest Alaska. He says before arriving in Kotzebue, hunters must have a negative COVID-19 result in hand to show Maniilaq Association health care workers. 

“They get on the airplane, they depart town. They don’t go to any villages. There’s no local contact at all,” Saalsaa said. “They’re out in the field for like ten days. They come back, they get on Alaska Airlines and they leave.”

Saalsaa says based on state data, communities have more to worry about in-state travellers and local residents carrying the virus than incoming hunters. 

“Kotzebue, you go to the ball field over there, and there’s 50 people over there watching a softball game without a mask on,” Saalsaa said. “So there’s bigger problems with residents of the state than nonresidents, because non-residents come up with that negative test result.”

Borough officials say they have also heard concerns from community members over hunters coming into Kotzebue and not following health mandates.

Selawik tribal administrator Tanya Ballot testified to the Northwest Arctic Borough on Tuesday. She says not only is the community concerned over virus spread, but local residents have been limited in their ability to subsist in the region.

“If we continue to ask our tribal members and families to hunker down, wear a mask and give up personal freedoms like travel and school for safety’s sake,” Ballot said, “is it too much to ask that we limit or ban outside trophy hunters?”

As of now, Borough mayor Lucy Nelson says the borough is on the side of the communities, and reviewing options they have with state and federal entities to see what can be done to limit hunting.

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