Alaska Subsistence

Migratory Birds Provide Relief in a Time of Uncertainty

Tamara Zeller
Migratory Bird Management
Anchorage, Alaska

Nothing in Alaska signifies the arrival of spring as much as the return of migratory birds. Coming from all over the globe, birds begin arriving in April and May to take advantage of the abundance of food that becomes available during those long days under the arctic sun. And when the migratory birds return, so do the outdoor enthusiasts hoping to catch a glimpse of these migrants and even listen for a new species. For some, this is also an opportunity to provide food for their families. After a long winter with limited hunting opportunities, birds provide not only a welcome change to the diet of rural and Native Alaskans, but also a chance to replenish foods for months ahead.

Though birds have always been an important part of the subsistence culture of Alaska Natives and indigenous communities around the world, the opportunity to harvest migratory birds was not always recognized or considered legal. While the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 set the foundation for bird conservation, it did not account for the spring-summer subsistence harvest of migratory birds by northern indigenous peoples. To remedy this situation, Alaska Natives and others worked to successfully amend the Treaty in 1997, and one of the results was the formation the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council (AMBCC). The AMBCC is a partnership that includes representatives from the Service, the State of Alaska, and Alaska Natives. The AMBCC considers recommendations for subsistence harvest regulations and other topics related to bird harvest and conservation and makes management decisions as a partnership. These proposed regulations are based on traditional and cultural practices of Alaska Native Peoples as well as western science. Traditional ecological knowledge is also a key component utilized in both the development of regulations as well as during the review process.

“The AMBCC is one of the best examples of co-management in the State of Alaska today,” said Patty Schwalenberg, AMBCC Executive Director. “Alaska Natives have ownership in this process because they are included as an equal partner and their advice and expertise is seriously considered when issues begin to be discussed.”

By working together, these three partners have been able to successfully create a meaningful role for Alaska Natives in 1) the development of regulations; 2) the review and approval of the proposed regulations; and 3) in the implementation of the regulations during the spring-summer subsistence season.

The ability to legally harvest migratory birds is more important than ever, given the current situation and concerns over food security. Many rural communities in Alaska have restrictions that prohibit or restrict travel to and from the local area and concerns over wildlife and human health remain at the forefront of conversations. Harvesting migratory birds can help provide relief for families when other options are limited or supplies run low. By sharing information about bird populations, species at risk, and listening to the needs of stakeholders, a balanced approach to bird conservation can be realized. It is through this process we can truly harvest the power of co-management during times of need and extraordinary circumstances like today.

Alaska Native of the Bering Strait Prepares a Snow Goose for Dinner. Tamara_Zeller/USFWS

Alaska Native of the Bering Strait Prepares a Snow Goose for Dinner.

Harvest of Snow Geese. Tamara_Zeller/USFWS

Harvest of Snow Geese.

Alaska Native hunter searches the shoreline. Tamara_Zeller/USFWS

Alaska Native hunter searches the shoreline.

Last Updated: April 30, 2020