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A Shifting Landscape Means Less Food for Alaska’s Hunters

The state’s subsistence hunters report the biggest problem they face isn’t declining wildlife populations, but a growing number of obstacles created by climate change, from rotten ice and melting permafrost to fallen trees scorched by wildfires.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A snowmobile pulls a toboggan at Fort Yukon in March 2016. Subsistence hunters in Alaska’s Interior have found that climate change is creating new obstacles that stand in the way of their pursuit of wildlife.Gloria Dickie

Paul Shewfelt approaches the podium inside the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government Hall in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Members of the Arctic Council have just arrived on a Beech 1900C aircraft to visit the village’s 600 residents, and Shewfelt has come to share his story of a changing climate on this cold March day.

Fort Yukon lies at the confluence of the Porcupine and Yukon rivers, amid the boreal forest, some 230km (145 miles) northeast of Fairbanks. The village is only accessible year-round by small aircraft, and by boats in ice-free summer months. “The people here are semi-landlocked throughout the year,” explains Shewfelt while members of the Arctic Council tuck into a hearty meal of caribou and fish spread. Here in the Interior, about 30 percent of people’s diet comes from subsistence foods, like moose, caribou, salmon, chum and waterfowl. “But the water is freezing later and later,” Shewfelt continues. And the village’s hunters can’t use their snowmobiles to get out into the bush.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and for those who call the region home, finding enough to eat is becoming harder and harder. Until recently, fish and game managers assumed the biggest hurdles for local communities would be changes in animal distribution and abundance, such as caribou herds changing migrational routes. But a new study published in Climatic Change finds that for people like Shewfelt, the greatest challenge is access to traditional hunting grounds. Indeed, of 47 identified relationships between climate-driven changes in the environment and availability of subsistence resources, 60 percent of those relationships focused on a change in harvester access. In their quest for calories, hunters reported facing unstable sea and river ice, fallen trees after a wildfire and permafrost degradation that made traversing the landscape exceedingly tough. This mismatch between what local harvesters think is most vulnerable to climate change and what agencies think is important means land managers have overemphasized wildlife population dynamics as an indicator of health and viability to determine hunting regulations, ignoring decreased accessibility.

“We thought if there are a lot of animals out on the land, the hunting populations will be just fine. Now, it turns out, that’s a gross oversimplification,” says Todd Brinkman, lead author of the study. “It’s a big deal for wildlife ecologists like myself.”

Fishing equipment sits on the banks of the Yukon River. (Gloria Dickie)

Fishing equipment sits on the banks of the Yukon River. (Gloria Dickie)

Over the course of five years, researchers collected the accounts of 71 experienced subsistence harvesters from the coastal Inupiat communities of Wainwright and Kaktovik, and the Interior communities of Venetie and Fort Yukon. From these interviews, they forecast a net reduction in the availability of subsistence resources over the next 30 years, driven primarily by reduced access, as well as animal distribution and abundance. When they ran the same model without accounting for access concerns, they found that the same resources originally predicted to decline became stable or even increased – revealing the inherent problem in current management.

This revelation is likely to be more important to Interior communities, who face stricter government regulations on the mammals they hunt than coastal Indigenous communities who, thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are given more freedom to hunt when and where they want, provided a species isn’t depleted and hunting isn’t wasteful. “Coastal communities have more authority and power in their hunting system, whereas regulations surrounding terrestrial species are set through the Alaska Board of Game which manages for all residents of the state, rather than Indigenous communities,” explains Brinkman. There’s no distinction between Indigenous, rural and non-rural.

Though the current model doesn’t account for the adaptive capacity of communities, Brinkman hopes this will be addressed in the near future. In a study published this summer on how changes in sea ice were affecting Indigenous hunters, researchers found communities were showing surprising resilience. “Communities like Wainwright are talking about trying to go whale hunting in the fall, but there the whales tend to be farther offshore,” said lead researcher Henry Huntington in an interview with Arctic Deeply this summer. “One of the questions is, do Wainwright hunters have adequate boats for going that much farther offshore in the fall where there can be winds, waves and other hazards?”

For now, Brinkman wants to focus on specific disturbances facing hunters to better quantify when, where and why they’re occurring. “If trail conditions are bad, is that related to permafrost or other changes in the hydrology of the landscape?” Last March, he sent out GPS-equipped cameras to subsistence hunters in nine different Alaskan communities. The hunters will travel with these devices for 12 consecutive months, snapping photos and making notes wherever they encounter a disturbance, like a blocked trail or open water. When the study wraps up this March, Brinkman and his colleagues will cross-reference the disturbances to three decades’ worth of aerial and satellite imagery from NASA to see how the landscape has changed over time and determine if these disturbances are anomalies or indicative of a longer-term trend.

“This might be able to say something about the future trajectory and then we can begin conversations with communities about how best to adapt,” concludes Brinkman.

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