The Ahtna people have been managing the land and natural resources across 26 million acres, an area about the size of the state of Ohio, for thousands of years. Our ancestors were born biologists who carefully managed fish and wildlife for sustainability. The land and waters of the region once provided everything for the Ahtna people. Recently, western science is becoming more aware of the importance of native, or indigenous, science as a means to gauge acceptable practices for fish, wildlife and plant harvesting. Essentially the native knowledge has been used and proven to be so effective that renowned western scientists are utilizing Native American management systems across entire ecosystems.
“I have been in the land and natural resource field for nearly forty years and there isn’t a day that goes by that myself, or staff, learn something new from the Ahtna people about how they managed the resources.”
– Joe Bovee, Ahtna, Inc. Vice President of Land and Resources
After the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), Ahtna, Incorporated received 1.55 million acres of land from an entitlement of 1.77 million acres; we still await conveyance of over 180,000 acres. Our land selections amounted to less than seven percent of our traditional homeland. Our elders selected our ANCSA lands based primarily on hunting and fishing patterns. Their most important priority was ensuring we had access to traditional foods so we could feed ourselves. ANCSA created Village Corporations for each of the eight remaining villages in the Ahtna region. However, in 1980, seven of the Village Corporations merged with Ahtna, Incorporated to pool their resources for efficiency with land management and development opportunities on Ahtna lands. Chitina Native Corporation is the only remaining independent ANCSA village corporation.
The goal of Ahtna’s Land & Resources Department is to protect and responsibly develop land and resources for the benefit of Ahtna shareholders. Ahtna has wildlife biologists, foresters, resource technicians and full-time trespass enforcement on staff to optimally manage the land and resources for the primary purpose of protecting and developing the programs listed below. No other ANCSA landowner does this.
Today the Ahtna Land & Resources Department is as much about managing the land as it is about managing the users. Approximately 10,000 fisherman, 10,000 hunters and over 600,000 tourists visit the Ahtna region annually. Ahtna issues land use permits for recreational activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, and photography. Ahtna assists the public with legal navigation of the region with interpretive signage, map kiosks and pay stations, local natural resource technician patrols, and a mobile land app designed to provide users with the ability to check land ownership in the region.
Alaska is on the frontline of climate change. Scientists warn of rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns causing oceans to rise and storms to become more intense. Our elders, who possess a deep knowledge of our lands and waters accumulated over generations, warn us of the changes they are seeing in weather patterns and its effect on animal behavior. Later fish runs and shifts in migration patterns are two examples, but fishery openings/closings and hunting seasons are not being adjusted accordingly. Ahtna is working with other organizations and partners so these changes can be studied and quantified. When everything changes, regulatory laws and policy decisions must change too.
While the words management and stewardship are common terms used to describe relationships between humans and the natural world, the Ahtna people recognize that we are part of the natural world, placed in this region by a higher spiritual power – Nek’eltaeni. Ahtna values related to living from the land are based on a particular perspective about the relationship humans have with all living creatures. In the Ahtna tradition, animals and humans exist in a reciprocal relationship. Animals make the decision to sacrifice themselves to humans, but they do this only on the condition that humans treat them with respect. In short, the focus is on the human ability to manage their relationship with the animals.
Ahtna is working with local agencies to better understand bear distribution and population levels within the Ahtna Traditional Use Territory. The Carnivore Stewardship Program uses cameras and hair snares to estimate bear counts. Results of DNA analysis for the 2020 season are currently pending but will tell us exactly how many bears visited the hair snares. This information will be used to formulate a rough population density across the Ahtna region. Results of DNA analysis and future bear studies will help determine more accurate bear density figures and population trends.
MOOSE TRACK COUNTS
Ahtna conducts annual winter moose track counts to help estimate moose densities on Ahtna land. We are planning to increase track counts to two sets per village area, capturing early and late winter to compare movement and help improve seasonal estimates. Ahtna conducts track counts annually to help determine population trends and areas in need of habitat improvement. Preliminary results show an increase in moose density in the 2020-2021 season across most areas.
Aerial wolf surveys are being conducted to obtain estimates of current wolf populations and pack numbers in Game Management Unit (GMU) 11 to assist with proposed wolf collaring efforts. Aerial surveys are a relatively inexpensive method to estimate wolf populations but are only feasible when the appropriate snow conditions are met because surveys are conducted by flying a grid pattern and locating tracks and/or wolves. Results of aerial surveys are improved with the use of GPS collars because they enable us to locate wolves and conduct surveys regardless of snow conditions, which in turn reduces the time spent searching for wolves. Collars will also enable us to determine the pack territories and areas of heavy wolf use in relation to moose and caribou.
TRADITIONAL HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES
Ahtna is working towards increasing traditional shareholder hunting opportunities throughout the region. A healthy and productive habitat is an essential part of this effort. Moose browse projects have been completed in four villages and a fifth is currently being planned. High-quality forage is also being cultivated at the moose browse locations in an effort to increase the numbers of moose in the area.
Two cabins have been erected to provide shareholders with shelter for hunting, customary and traditional use, and recreational opportunities. One of these cabins (Roy S. Ewan Cabin) was constructed in 2020 and is located on the upper Klawasi River trail system; the other is located on Middle Lake. In 2021, staff will be improving the existing Klawasi trail, improving the airstrip at the Roy S. Ewan Cabin, and extending the trail to a future cabin in the upper Sanford River area. Plans are being developed to construct a new bridge spanning the Kotsina River beginning in 2022-2023.
Everywhere you look in the Ahtna region, you see places where our ancestors fished, hunted, built caribou fences, ran traplines, camped, or lived in a village. Ahtna is keeping track of these old places by creating and maintaining an internal cultural places catalog—a listing of all known historic and cultural sites. The catalog will help Ahtna to protect these important places and keep them in living memory.
In 2018, Ahtna published a history book (www.ahtna.com/book) and provided complimentary copies to every shareholder household. With remarkable openness, the book explains Ahtna Athabascan history and culture as shared by elders. Running through their accounts is their devout relationship to the land and to each other.
These efforts combined will allow the land to continue to sustain the Ahtna people and allow generation after generation to prosper.