ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) Concerns over new restrictions on the hunting of Chukchi Sea polar bears bubbled to the surface at the recent Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) conference in Fairbanks, the largest gathering of indigenous people in the United States.
Delegates passed a resolution from the Native Village of Point Lay that says AFN -- Alaska’s largest statewide organization of Alaska Natives -- opposes any reduction in the harvest of Chukchi polar bears by subsistence hunters. Polar bears, throughout their range in Alaska, are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act but Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt them under an exemption to the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
That could change, however, at least the amount allowed to be taken.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to enforce a harvest quota, established under a treaty with Russia, that would set the number of polar bears allowed to be hunted by Alaska Natives at 29. Russia also gets 29 bears under the Alaska-Chukota Polar Bear treaty, signed in 2000 and ratified by the United States in 2007.
Prior to the treaty, Chukota Natives were not allowed to hunt polar bears.
U.S. officials have never enforced the polar bear quota but the Fish and Wildlife Service was expecting in January to publish regulations that would implement the harvest restrictions, which apparently triggered the AFN resolution.
KTUU reached out for comment several times by phone and email to the Native Village of Point Lay but no one was available this week. The Point Lay resolution says the subsistence hunt of polar bears helps “to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of our residents.”
“Very little information has been provided to our Native Village and community members by the Federal government or the Alaska Nanuuq Commission” on the why regulators plan to enforce the quota, according to the resolution.
Formed in 1994, the financially troubled Alaska Nanuuq Commission (ANC) represents 15 Native villages in northern and northwest Alaska on matters concerning polar bears. (Nanuuq means polar bear in Inupiaq.) In 2001, ANC signed a co-management agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide services including strategic planning, research and implementation of the U.S.-Russia treaty.
The commission, however, stopped receiving federal funding from Fish and Wildlife this summer after audits in 2012 and 2013 turned up “inappropriate expenditures.”
“They have had a couple of federal audits. They’re classified as ‘high risk,’” said Hilary Cooley, polar bear lead at Fish and Wildlife.
According to a Marine Mammals Commission summary of a two-day polar bear summit held in Nome in June, several participants raised concerns about Alaska Nanuuq Commission’s “financial stability and previous lack of engagement” with Alaska villages where residents hunt polar bears.
“Of primary concern going forward were federal audits indicating inappropriate expenditures of federal dollars by ANC and whether those debts might be forgiven—a decision which FWS indicated would be reviewed by Department of Justice,” according to the meeting summary.
The Fish and Wildlife Service steered nearly $3 million of dollars to the commission between 2012 and 2016, according to an agency spokeswoman.
In July, the Fish and Wildlife Service notified the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and about 100 individuals from villages, regional corporations and organizations that the agency could not enter a new funding agreement with the Nanuuq Commission “due to the instability and uncertainty of their financial situation,” according to a letter from Mary Colligan, assistant regional director, Fisheries and Ecological Services.
The Alaska Nanuuq Commision was required to repay Fish and Wildlife the funds that were improperly spent. In a letter to the Marine Mammals Commission this month, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the Nanuuq Commission is in default on those payments and had not worked out a repayment plan.
“We ultimately concluded that we could not continue to fund the operations of the ANC while meeting our responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure proper use and accountability of federal funds,” wrote Gary Frazer, assistant director of ecological studies.
Phone numbers for the Alaska Nanuuq Commission’s offices in Anchorage and Nome no longer work.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said the Department of Interior, Office of the Inspector General, was looking at the case.
"Once they complete their investigation, it would be forwarded on to the Department of Justice if there were evidence to prosecute," Medeiros said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, is looking for another Alaska Native group to work with on polar bear management. A cooperative agreement between the federal agency and a Native group is required under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
The agency has traveled to numerous northern and northwest Alaska villages over the last two years to explain to upcoming quota enforcement under the U.S.-Russia Treaty.
Russian and U.S. commissioners will meet in Anchorage on Nov. 17 and 18 to vote on next year’s harvest quota and to hear the latest scientific information about polar bears, a species that is threated due to shrinking sea ice.
Contact KTUU Senior Digital Reporter Paula Dobbyn at email@example.com, 907-762-9242, or @pauladobbyn