Subsistence, Politics, and Cultural Norms

Edwin Wollert / Education Coordinator / Wolf Song of Alaska

Many visitors to Alaska are unfamiliar with the ancient notion of subsistence hunting, and that it continues in many parts of the world other than the 49th state, especially in Africa, Australia, and parts of Southeast Asia.  Here, however, is the last part of the United States which widely engages in this practice, and since it concerns all of Alaska's wildlife, it is important to discuss it via Wolf Song of Alaska.

Subsistence hunting is the harvesting of non-human animals for food, hides, and often bones as well.  It differs fundamentally from two main other types of hunting done by humans: commercial hunting and sport hunting.  Commercial hunting targets individuals of a species which are surplus to an area's carrying capacity, and sport hunting, also known as trophy hunting, involves pleasure of the hunter as the objective.

It is essential to recognize that Wolf Song of Alaska does not have an organizational policy regarding any type of hunting.  Sport hunting is the most controversial; indeed, even many subsistence and commercial hunters are opposed to it, regarding the acquisition of mere trophies as a senseless waste of wildlife.  Commercial hunting, meanwhile, is done in countless areas around the globe, and is typically subject to less public outcry.

That leaves subsistence hunting, which is a basic part of life for thousands of Alaska's human residents.  The main fished species include halibut and all five types of indigenous salmon, as well as moose, caribou, and to varying degrees, also musk oxen, elk, Sitka black-tailed deer, beavers, Dall's sheep, mountain goats, walruses, and even certain whale species.  The emphasis is on providing food and supplies for human communities, and Alaska's game and wildlife managers face the daunting task of trying to accommodate the complex mesh of human interests regarding our magnificent wildlife populations.  Species which are off-limits in Alaska to any forms of hunting include eagles and other marine mammals, the latter category including such diverse species as sea otters, Steller's sea lions, harbor seals, orcas, beluga whales, Dall's porpoises, and humpback whales.  Certain other species can only be hunted by members of Alaska's diverse indigenous tribes, such as right whales, and then only at certain times of year.

What this means in practical terms is that various types of hunting are part of Alaskan culture, though the values placed on individual species can vary dramatically.  For example, sea otter harvesting is now illegal, and many visitors adore the furry swimmers.  In fact, the sharp decline in the local otter population from over-harvesting the animals for fur (including wolves) was the primary motivation behind the effort of Russia to sell Alaska to the United States in the 19th century!

Other species are affected by such trends.  Many people frown highly on the hunting of any of Alaska's three bear species: brown/grizzly, black, and polar.  Still, hunting of all three is legal under certain conditions, and as will all huntable species, bag limits vary in different regions of the state and according to season.  Also, wolves have once again become a touchy subject in Alaskan politics, for several reasons.  First, Alaskan voters have said no, twice, to aerial hunting of wolves, which used to be the dominant method.  Second, whenever wolves have been hunted in different parts of the world, it has never been for subsistence; rather, it has usually been for sport, and occasionally for commercial reasons.  So, even though many Alaskan communities depend on subsistence hunting, which is generally accepted, all three types of hunting exist in Alaska into the present, and how we residents of this state confront hunting issues will continue to be a source of debate well into the future.