New Report Recounts Alaskan Subsistence Hunters' Climate Change-driven Challenges

Dec 2, 2016

Climate change challenging subsistence hunters … 

Climate change has made life harder in many ways for indigenous peoples of the circumpolar north who depend on fish and wildlife to feed their families. And a new study examines what’s become the biggest difficulty for Alaska’s subsistence hunters: that is, just getting out into the field to get to the food.

UAF research assistant professor Todd Brinkman and fellow researcher Shauna BurnSilver talk with indigenous hunters in Venetie to document their knowledge of how climate change is transforming the ecosystem in their area.
Credit UAF/Gary Kofinas

“The greatest impact has been on people’s ability to traverse the land and get out into the areas that they hunt and fish,” says Todd Brinkman an assistant professor of wildlife biology with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology. “Most of the effects has been negative, and seem to be challenging people’s ability to harvest those resources they rely on.”

Brinkman is the lead author of the study that examines the problem. The study was published in October in the science journal Climatic Change.

Climate change has made boreal forests more susceptible to wildfires. In turn, trees killed and felled by fire, such as these near Nulato, make it tough to trappers to get to their traplines, one of the few ways subsistence communities can earn income.
Credit Todd Brinkman

“The way the landscape is changing, it’s just harder to traverse those environments,” he said. “There’s safety issues. There' weather events that are occurring. It seems to be a more unpredictable and unstable environment.”

The study is based on accounts subsistence hunters gave to Brinkman and fellow researchers over the past five years. The hunters recount such difficulties as traversing tundra that’s thawing and squishy due to persistently above-normal temperatures well into the fall hunting season or well before breakup.

That’s what Mark Leary, who lives in the upper Kuskokwim village of Napamiut says he ran into last spring.

“The best hunting in my experience for birds has been when they first come, and you could still go by snowmachine,” Leary told KYUK reporter Charles Enoch. “But it’s been so thawed out all over that the birds are more spread out and we can't go by snowmachine.”

Subsistence hunters from four communities in northern Alaska participated in the study. In their expanded followup study, Brinkman and fellow researchers will talk with hunters from nine communities throughout the Interior.
Credit UAF

Brinkman and fellow researchers recorded the hunters’ accounts in meetings and interviews in four Alaskan communities – two on the coast, two on rivers in the Interior. Brinkman says the study is the first to examine access problems encountered by subsistence hunters in the Interior. He says he’s now working on a follow-on study that’ll be based on accounts by hunters in nine communities along the Yukon River and its drainages.

Next week: Subsistence hunters serving as "citizen scientists" help Brinkman's team by providing detailed observations about climate change-driven changes in their areas that have made hunting, fishing and trapping more difficult.

Editor's note: This story was revised to correct Brinkman's job title – he's an assistant professor of wildlife biology with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology.