Speakers address climate change, subsistence

Three Alaska Native subsistence users addressed an audience of national wildlife policy advisers last 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 June 9 and 10 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.”

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