It’s only a slight stretch to say that Yukon River king salmon have spawned a novel approach to National Wildlife Refuge System law enforcement in Alaska.

King salmon is an important cultural and culinary part of Alaska Natives’ subsistence lifestyle. Its numbers in the Yukon River have been dropping for years. For the species’ long–term health, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposes regulations on king salmon fishing. The regulations aggravate Alaska Natives whose remote villages are within refuges. Federal wildlife officers must enforce the regulations and issue citations for violations such as fishing during closed periods.

“Ninety–nine percent of the time when a federal wildlife officer arrives in a village,” says Alaska Region Refuge System law enforcement chief Jim Hjelmgren, “something not cool is happening.”

So, Hjelmgren and his officers have been making informal, unannounced, meet–and–greet visits to villages. They show up in uniform, say hello, listen, answer questions. They connect with villagers “in a neighborly fashion.”

Federal wildlife officers from a dozen of Alaska’s 16 refuges have made about 80 such visits, most in recent years.

“The idea came from my core belief that, for the most part, federal law enforcement agencies are missing great opportunities to further their agency’s mission,” says Hjelmgren. “No matter how well we do our jobs, if folks utilizing refuge lands choose not to follow the law, our mission and goals for resource conservation will be unobtainable.”

Officer Isaac Bedingfield agrees.

“When the villagers hear on the radio that the Service is restricting their fishing or hunting, it is natural for them to feel their way of life is being threatened,” says Bedingfield, who estimates he has made 45 drop–in visits in the past two years. “It is absolutely crucial these relationships be developed, or we can be seen as nothing more than hard–handed, impersonal disciplinarians. But if we can tie strings to hearts of individuals and find mutual respect as co–laborers in stewardship, then we will see native people wanting to work alongside us to conserve and protect resources.”

Bringing “Positivity” to Town

These stroll–around–the–village visits contrast with formal visits scheduled for a certain time in a certain place with certain people. The drop–in visits are “speaking to a neighbor over the fence rather than in a sterile meeting room environment,” says Hjelmgren.

“It is not enough to have an official government–to–government meeting once every five years,” says Bedingfield. “That is good, but it still keeps the Service seeming aloof, impersonal and distant.”

The villagers generally react well when officers bring “positivity” to town, Hjelmgren says.

Sometimes an elder will invite the officer(s) in for coffee or black fish dipped in seal oil. Occasionally, villagers will halt a council meeting to welcome the officer(s). Virtually always, “the young kids want to talk. They always ask our names, what we are doing, where we live,” Hjelmgren says. “At times, the kids following us resemble a parade.”

Even though the visits are expensive, time–consuming and logistically difficult, Hjelmgren, Bedingfield and others believe in them because they work.

“Sitting on a couch talking makes a difference. Shaking a hand at the boat landing makes a difference. Providing an elder the ability to vent while I buy a can of sardines at the village store makes a difference,” Hjelmgren says. “With 77 million acres of refuge lands in Alaska, we need rural villages to believe in the Service’s mission. If they don’t, and refuse to comply with the rules and regulations in place, the resources of Alaska will lose on a grand scale.”