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Kathryn Frost

Co-Management of Natural Resources in Alaska

When you become a biologist or scientist, you do so because you're seeking "truth" or the right answers. It never really occurs to you that you might simply be part of another value system and represent one of several opinions. This is made worse because most of us who live in the US don't experience a lot of cross cultural interaction. We live in the majority culture where our own value system is the predominant one.

When you're a graduate student in biology or wildlife management, you learn that if you follow the scientific method you'll find the "truth". You don't expect people to question the premise of your approach -- the interpretation of the data, yes -- but not the construct of the study and the approach -- and certainly not your world view. There is an underlying assumption that people will defer to "good" science and acknowledge that it represents reality.

As residents of the United States and members of a western European culture, we also believe in democracy. It is a fundamental part of the way we think and make decisions and how we live. Inherent in democracy is a system where we vote and a majority vote determines the outcome. We can have a vote -- and decide an issue -- with 49 of 100 people dissenting. This is in real contrast to many Native communities where decisions are made by consensus not by the majority. And in fact, until there is consensus, there is no decision.

Alaska has one of the most democratic systems of wildlife management in the country. Long before it was popular in other places, we had citizen committees involved in wildlife management issues and actions. We hire biologists as the official people who study animals and tell the rest of us about the intricacies of their lives, and then communities designate individuals to interface with biologists and work with them to make decisions about the uses of fish and wildlife. This system works pretty well in urban centers -- or in small non-native communities where the culture acknowledges that western science and a system of experts is the appropriate way to collect information about wildlife and a majority vote is a satisfactory way to make decisions.

The complication comes when we expect people who have a different world view and a different way of making decisions to buy into this system. For rural and especially Native people in Alaska, fish and wildlife is not only something to view and occasionally to hunt, it is food and an integral part of their lives. It isn't food for a special occasion or food you eat when "dad goes hunting" but every day sustenance. Consequently, people pay a lot more daily attention to where animals are and what they are doing... and, they want to be considered not only in decisions about how they may use fish and wildlife but also in the studies of these animals. They have local knowledge and informed opinions about the status of the animals the live around and depend upon. Non-native people may also have this same approach to wildlife and it's use, but by and large they culturally compatible with the existing wildlife management system and are comfortable working within that system and making themselves heard.

This is really where the concept of co-management was born. People wanted to have a say in the decisions that government agencies and "outsiders" made about how and when they could and should use the fish and wildlife around them. And, they wanted to evaluate the information used to make those decisions based on their own experiences on the land or the sea. Interestingly, this very same issue was one of the basic motivations for Alaska statehood 40 some years ago... but it was a state federal issue, not a Native non-native issue.

Co-management hasn't been an easy idea for wildlife agencies and managers to accept. They're used to calling the shots -- not because they're self-righteous but because they feel they have been trained and hired to do this job. It's hard to share your job -- and it's hard to see your job description change in front of your eyes when you're not sure you know how to do the new job. By the same token, it's not easy for people who live in an area and depend on its resources- and have done so for generations - to see outsiders come in and assume they are better qualified than anyone else to make decisions.

For co-management to really work, it has to really be a 2-way street. Everybody has to give up something for anybody --both people and animals - to win. It has been a not-very-funny joke for a lot of years that the managing agencies think that co-management means that "you cooperate and we manage." By the same token, co-managing doesn't mean just doing whatever you want.

So what is co-management? It's when two groups of people come together and share the responsibility for managing a resource as equal partners. For it to work, there has to be a common end goal -- healthy animals -- but flexible methods of getting to this end. In most parts of the country, harvests are controlled by individual seasons and bag limits that are designed to provide opportunity to individuals but not necessarily success. In Alaska, the moose hunting seasons are set to occur while the leaves are on the trees and it's very hard to see moose. Hunters get a chance to have a great hunting experience, but not many of them get a moose. In contrast, when the hunters in Point Lay go after caribou, it is because they plan to eat them and they need to succeed. They don't want to hunt only within a 2 week period when they are least likely to succeed and when it's too hot to preserve the meat -- nor do they want to confine their hunting to a few weeks of the year. One man may hunt for several families and elders -- and be a poor fit for a one hunting license-one animal way of doing business.

The trick is coming up with a system that safeguards the animals yet gives people the maximum amount of control over their lives. Because most Americans eat domestic animals, we've gotten away from thinking about wild fish and animals as food. They're watchable wildlife and a symbol of wild country and the things the rest of us don't have any more. But the reality in Alaska is that moose and caribou and harbor seals and beluga whales - all the things you come here to see - are not only wild and beautiful to see and photograph, but they are also good to eat and carve and sew and use. And there is no reason we can't use as well as conserve if we do it right.

One of the thorny issues we face when we get into co-management is what information we use and how we get it. For example -- population estimates. When we develop policy for safeguarding wildlife against impacts from human activities such as fishing or oil and gas development, we tend to use very conservative or "risk averse' estimates of things like population size. While that may be entirely appropriate for those sorts of applications, it is less so when managing someone's food. And when we use such estimates and defend them as "real" and not intentionally conservative, we lose people's trust and respect.

Co-management can allow us to get beyond the "us and them" that so often exists in many cross-cultural groups and find a "we." Instead of distrust because one side doesn't know what the other is doing, it allows -- and in fact requires -- that people work together to collect and interpret information. The result is that instead of constantly fighting over the science, people share the conduct of science. They put their heads together to come up with better ideas about how to do things right so that animals are around for our grand children and our great great grand children to both watch and use.


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