Judge’s Decision Hands Subsistence Management on Kuskokwim River to Feds

Photo: Wesley Tingey via Unsplash.

A federal court judge in Anchorage has ruled in favor of the Biden administration, giving the federal government authority to give rural residents priority to fish for salmon on the Kuskokwim River, where stocks have dwindled, while the state of Alaska wants the fishery open to all residents.

In a decision handed down March 29, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the state is enjoined from reinstating Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) actions in 2021 and 2022 on fishing on the Kuskokwim River within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Gleason said the federal government and intervenor-plaintiffs, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, have shown irreparable harm to enforce rural subsistence priority to federally qualified subsistence users by the state issuing conflicting emergency orders.

The plaintiffs showed that the balance of equities and the public interest support a permanent injunction, Gleason ruled in the 29-page decision.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state would appeal the division, and wants the matter decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dispute dates back to 2021, when ADF&G decided to periodically allow fishing by all state residents on the Kuskokwim River, in conflict with a federal decision to open the area for fishing only to federally qualified subsistence fishermen, predominantly Alaska Natives living in rural Alaska.

The Biden administration argued in its 2022 lawsuit that the 1980 Alaska Native Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) required priority be given to rural residents during times of scarcity, for both hunting and fishing.

The administration of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy countered that the district court should apply the decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, siding with Alaska hunter John Sturgeon, who was arrested by a National Park Service officer for operating a hovercraft on a river within a national wildlife preserve.

Gleason said that the Supreme Court expressly stated that its ruling in the Sturgeon case does not disturb the Ninth Circuit’s holdings that the U.S. Park Service may regulate subsistence fishing on navigable waters.

Gleason said the court is bound to find that rural subsistence priority applies to navigable waters in which the U.S. has reserved water rights.