The Harvest and Use of Wild Resources by Communities Within or Near Northern Alaska Parklands

Caroline Brown, Alaska Department of Fish & Game
Brooke McDavid, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Caroline Brown is the Statewide Research Director for the Division of Subsistence at the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. During her 20 years with the division, she spent 15 as the lead Subsistence Resource Specialist for Interior Alaska and three years as the Northern Region Program Manager before taking on her current role. She serves as the alternate U.S. Co-chair of the Yukon River Salmon Panel. Ms. Brown has worked on several traditional knowledge projects along the Yukon River, focusing on the subsistence and use of nonsalmon fish species and the investigating the socioeconomic effects of the 2009 salmon disaster on the Yukon River that paid special attention to the role of an exchange continuum (sharing, barter, and customary trade) in Yukon River villages. Ms. Brown completed an M.A. and her PhD candidacy in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Brooke McDavid worked for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Division of Subsistence from 2015-2022 as Subsistence Resource Specialist for the Yukon River region where she was a critical team member for several projects examining exchange practice of subsistence resource, including customary trade and social networks of salmon distribution. She also co-authored several technical papers addressing aspects of Yukon River fisheries, including
Local traditional knowledge of the freshwater life stages of Yukon River Chinook and chum salmon in Anvik, Huslia, Allakaket, and Fort Yukon and The harvest and use of wild foods by four communities bordering the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve: Central, Circle, Eagle, and Eagle Village, 2016 and 2017. Ms. McDavid received an M.S. in Natural Resources Management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2015. She participated in the Peace Corps Masters International Program and served three years as a volunteer in the Fiji Islands where she worked with rural, Indigenous communities on resource management and sustainable development planning.
A stack of frozen northern pike.
Various non-salmon fishes also play a large role in subsistence harvests in rural Alaska.
At Noorvik, northern pike make up a large portion of the annual harvest.


Customary and traditional harvests of wild resources provide for the nutritional, economic, spiritual, and cultural well-being of communities throughout Alaska (Wolfe et al. 2010, Wolfe and Walker 1987). Extended family groups often work cooperatively to harvest and process subsistence resources and then share those resources widely within and between communities (Brown et al. 2017, BurnSilver et al. 2016, Fall 2016). In Alaska, subsistence practices are a critical part of rural community economies, stemming from a long history of Indigenous practices that have evolved over time. The importance of subsistence is recognized in both state and federal law, where it is given priority over other consumptive uses. Documenting harvests, local knowledge about resources, subsistence use areas, and customary and traditional practices provides critical information for resource management agencies and for communities when self-advocating in state and federal regulatory processes. Consistently collecting this information over time allows for analyses of changes to resources and their use and for management to adapt to those changes.

In Alaska, a significant amount of subsistence activity occurs on National Park Service (NPS)-managed lands. As a federal land management agency, the NPS was granted the authority and responsibility to manage protected lands in ten national parks, preserves, and monuments throughout Alaska after the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. ANILCA defined a significantly different approach to resource management compared to how NPS lands were managed in the rest of the United States outside of Alaska: access to new parklands in Alaska was more liberal than to parklands outside of Alaska and subsistence practices were generally allowed to continue within the borders. However, the creation of these new parklands was not without impact to subsistence users. In some regions, people were displaced from parks and new regulations changed the way people used the land and resources therein (Trainor et al. 2020).

Comprehensive Subsistence Harvest Data

Providing for subsistence uses requires understanding both the human history within NPS-managed lands as well as historical and contemporary patterns of resource use. To facilitate the protection of subsistence uses on parklands, the NPS supports research to estimate the annual harvests and uses of wild fish, game, and plant resources in communities that have long histories of subsistence use in or near NPS-managed lands. For over 40 years, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) Division of Subsistence has partnered with Alaska’s communities to scientifically gather, quantify, evaluate, and report information about customary and traditional uses of Alaska’s fish, wildlife, and vegetative resources (AS 16.05.094). The Division of Subsistence works cooperatively with federal agencies, including the NPS, to ensure resource managers have quality information about subsistence uses.

The Division of Subsistence applies several quantitative and qualitative social science research methods to fulfill its mission. These methods commonly include household surveys and recorded interviews with rural residents. Standardized surveys quantify the fish, wildlife, and plant resources harvested and used by community members as well as collect demographic, economic, food security, participation, and harvest assessment data. The survey also includes space for respondents to provide comments concerns relevant to resource management. Standardized harvest data are entered into the online Community Subsistence Information System (CSIS) that allows public access to community-level data for all study years, all resources, and all communities where surveys have been conducted. It also allows for the comparison of data across communities and over time. Full technical reports are also available online for most of these data.

Comprehensive studies also include an ethnographic component where researchers conduct in-depth interviews with local experts to provide context for harvest data. This context may include information about harvest and processing techniques, changes in hunting practices or areas over time, and other socio-ecological aspects of subsistence, such as climate and landscape change and resource health.

To date, comprehensive subsistence surveys have been completed in over 240 communities across the state, resulting in a tremendous dataset of subsistence harvest and use information accessible to community residents, management agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. Overall, rural Alaska residents harvest an average of 276 pounds of wild foods per person each year compared to just 19 pounds per person by urban Alaska residents (ADF&G 2019). In some areas of the state, harvests exceed 400 pounds per person annually. In rural Alaska, 60% of households harvest wild game and 86% of households use wild game. For fish resources these percentages are even greater: 83% of households harvest fish and 95% use fish. Differences between percentages of households harvesting and using resources are attributed to the sharing of wild foods between harvesting households and others. The combination of the quantitative and qualitative methods in these studies provides a robust foundation for describing contemporary harvests, changes to harvest over time, and local observations of climate change, described in more detail below.

Contemporary Subsistence Harvests on or Near Parklands

The Division of Subsistence and the NPS have a long history of collaborating with rural communities to document subsistence harvest and uses in and near all NPS parks and preserves that are open to subsistence hunting and fishing. Recently, between 2014 and 2018, the division conducted comprehensive surveys in seven communities across northern Alaska that have long histories of subsistence use in or near NPS-managed land (Figure 1, Table 1). These include Eagle, Eagle Village, Circle, Central (Trainor et al. 2020), and Northway (Godduhn and Kostick 2016) in the eastern Interior region of Alaska; Hughes (Wilson and Kostick 2016) in the central Interior; and Buckland (Mikow and Cunningham 2020) in Northwest Alaska. Together, the communities of eastern Interior, central Interior, and Northwest Alaska represent a large regional band of northern Alaska that share many similarities in their subsistence practices but also important differences that have shaped these places over time. Eastern and central Alaska have been primarily occupied by people of Athabascan descent who have long accessed boreal resources of moose and caribou alongside riverine salmon resources. A broad collection of additional resources including birds, non-salmon fish, small land mammals, and plants complete their annual subsistence cycle. Buckland residents are predominately Iñupiaq, and like other small, predominately Alaska Native communities in rural Alaska, remain substantially dependent on their annual harvests of fish, land mammals, migratory waterfowl, and vegetation, but with the important addition of marine mammals (Magdanz et al. 2011). This paper considers findings for these northern communities.

A map showing the location of Yukon River villages mentioned in the article.
Figure 1. Communities where ADF&G has conducted comprehensive subsistence surveys near NPS-managed land since 2014.
Table 1. Summary information for communities participating in comprehensive subsistence studies.
Community Study Year Population % Alaska Native Total Subsistence
Harvest (pounds)
Per Capita
Harvest (pounds)
Local NPS Unit
Buckland 2018 588 96% 325,037 553.2 Bering Land Bridge
Circle 2017 82 82% 30,593 374.9 Yukon-Charley Rivers
Central 2017 79 4% 9,288 117.3 Yukon-Charley Rivers
Eagle 2017 161 15% 110,932 691.1 Yukon-Charley Rivers
Eagle Village 2017 24 100% 7,910 336.1 Yukon-Charley Rivers
Hughes 2014 90 100% 32,448 359.6 Gates of the Arctic
Northway 2014 194 88% 60,791 313.7 Denali
SOURCE: ADF&G Division of Subsistence household surveys, 2014, 2017, and 2018.

Multiple factors shape community subsistence practices and harvest productivity. For example, the percent of the population that is Alaska Native, distance from roads and urban centers, average income, local resource abundance and health, and regulations can all play a role in the composition of a community’s total subsistence harvest in any given year (Wolfe and Walker 1987). Subsistence harvests in the seven study communities reflect a diversity of geographic and demographic conditions. For example, Buckland is a large, primarily Alaska Native community located near the coast in Northwest Alaska while, in contrast, Central is a smaller, predominately non-Native community located on the road system in Interior Alaska. Table 1 provides summary data for subsistence harvests by community. Total subsistence harvests ranged from 7,910 pounds (Eagle Village) to 325,037 pounds (Buckland). Because large communities tend to harvest larger quantities of wild resources, considering total community harvests by person (per capita) allows for comparison between communities while controlling for community size. Per capita harvests ranged from 117 pounds (Central) to 691 pounds (Eagle).

Figure 2 shows the composition of community subsistence harvests by resource category. Each community harvested a variety of resources; however, the compositions of the harvests by weight typically reflect local resource availability. Communities located directly along the Yukon River in Interior Alaska harvest large amounts of salmon that make up most of their total subsistence harvest. Non-salmon fish tend to play a more prominent role in communities such as Northway that do not have access to as much salmon. Large land mammals are important in many communities, but moose and caribou make up greater proportions of total harvest in Buckland, Central, and Hughes. Harvest of marine mammals was unique to Buckland, the only coastal community represented.

Two side-by-side bar charts showing a comparison of the kinds of subsistence foods harvested by community and changes over time.
Figure 2. Composition of community subsistence harvests by resource category, 2014-2018.

Changes to Subsistence Harvests Over Time

Comprehensive subsistence harvest data from multiple time periods can highlight changes to or consistency of subsistence practices and harvests over time. Earlier comprehensive subsistence harvest datasets exist for three of these communities: Buckland (2003), Northway (1987), and Hughes (1982).

In Buckland, a comparison between the two study years shows a relatively high degree of stability in the subsistence harvests. Although Buckland’s total estimated harvest in 2003 was 226,074 pounds, which is less than the estimated 325,037 pounds harvested in 2018, this change can be attributed to an increase in Buckland’s population between the two years. Per capita harvest amounts remained nearly identical: Buckland residents harvested 554 pounds per capita in 2003 and 553 pounds in 2018. The composition of harvest between the two years was also relatively similar. The only notable differences are that relatively more salmon and fewer marine mammals were harvested in the latter year—a change that can be explored further through qualitative analysis.

A comparison between the two study years for Hughes tells a very different story, however. In 1982, the community harvested 141,689 pounds of wild food, or about 1,492 pounds per person. In 2014, despite the population remaining relatively stable, the community harvested only 32,448 pounds of wild food, or about 360 pounds per person. However, perhaps the most striking change is in the composition of the total subsistence harvest. In 1982, the largest contributor to the total harvest was salmon; in 2014, residents harvested a greater proportion of large land mammals and non-salmon fish species. With over 30 years between the study periods, these estimates may reflect major changes in the community, such as a decrease in the number of sled dogs and salmon needed to feed those dogs. But the changes may also be attributed to other factors, such as changes in resource abundance. For example, in 2014, hunters commented that they had to travel farther than they used to to harvest moose. The long travel comes at an associated increase in cost, about which many respondents commented, especially concerning the rise in fuel prices.

Finally, in Northway, total harvest levels decreased as the human population also decreased. In 1987, Northway residents harvested 90,090 pounds of wild resources, or 278 pounds per person. In 2014, residents harvested a total of 60,791 pounds or nearly 314 pounds per person. Together, land mammals and non-salmon fish provide the foundation of the food supply in Northway. Although the total harvests of the non-salmon fish and large land mammals were overall much smaller in 2014 than in 1987, the data indicate that per capita harvests of these resource categories were similar. Northway residents harvested 129 pounds per person of non-salmon fish in 1987 and 124 pounds per person in 2014. The per capita large land mammal harvest was 90 pounds in 1987 and 86 pounds in 2014. In contrast, higher harvests of salmon, birds and eggs, and vegetation in 2014, divided among a smaller number of people, result in slightly higher per capita harvests compared to 1987.

A young woman holds a humpback whitefish she just caught.
A humpback whitefish harvested from waters off Cape Krusenstern National Monument.


Local Observations of Climate Change and Impacts to Subsistence

As a result of engaging in subsistence practices over generations, residents of communities across the north have a developed a deep knowledge base of the land and resources and thus have observed changes in their environment for years. Community residents shared their knowledge and observations with researchers through ethnographic interviews. In Northwest Alaska, Buckland residents noted that ice conditions have changed over the course of their lifetimes, especially sea ice. Successful spring hunting for marine mammals is directly connected to the presence and thickness of sea ice, which provides a platform for hunting and butchering seals and walruses. When the ice recedes more quickly, hunting windows for these species narrow. Receding ice may require hunters to travel long distances in pursuit of marine mammal resources. Several respondents also noted that ice break-up is now earlier than in the past, which can make travel on rivers and lakes treacherous in the spring months. Key respondents also shared that the fall months are warmer than in the past, delaying freeze-up of local waterways and resulting in less snow cover in the late fall and early winter months. Open waterways and limited snow cover can affect subsistence activities by making travel by snowmachine difficult or impossible.

A number of long-term environmental changes have been occurring in the upper Koyukuk River basin near the community of Hughes. Warmer seasonal temperatures accelerate spring break-up and delay fall freeze-up of the Koyukuk River, a principal travel corridor for area residents. Noticeably decreased snowfall inhibits travel on the numerous winter trails during winter and spring. The reduced snowfall creates dry spring conditions, lengthening the fire season by at least a month. Interior Alaska residents have noticed more frequent and severe fires during the summer. The warmer annual temperature has also led to thawing permafrost, draining lakes, and diminishing or eroding waterways (Beck et al. 2011). Lastly, brushy vegetation has spread in many areas and is slowly creeping northward. The combination of these factors significantly impedes travel, thereby affecting residents’ ability to access key harvest sites and culturally significant areas and to travel to other communities (Wolken et al. 2011).

In eastern Interior Alaska along the Yukon River, Circle, Central, and Eagle residents expressed concerns about declining populations of salmon, a keystone species for these communities, and changing environmental conditions. Residents noted that spring and fall seasons are warmer and that temperatures are not getting as cold in winter, potentially leading to thawing permafrost and drying lakes and waterways. These changes affect their ability to access subsistence areas and their ability to process and store subsistence foods.

Finally, in eastern Alaska along the Tanana River, Northway fishers described the incursion of muddy glacial water into previously clearwater lakes and streams over time. The Nabesna and Chisana rivers are glacial in origin and “muddy” with fine glacial silt. The Black Hills, about 20 miles south of Northway, feed clear (non-glacial) water to the plethora of lakes and creeks on the flats between the lower Nabesna and Chisana rivers. However, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chisana River has flooded fish, muskrat, waterfowl, and moose habitat with silty water, turning the clear creeks into silty sloughs over a decades-long process. Northway residents make connections between sedimentation and decreased whitefish runs, changes in fishing patterns, and changes to the distribution of non-fish species (especially muskrats and ducks) in the area. This change has impacted residents’ access to multiple resources and ultimately caused the loss of a traditional fishing site at K’ehtthiign (lake outlet; Tyone and Kari 1996), locally referred to as Fish Camp. The flooding is likely related to thawing permafrost that results in a decrease in the volume of soil and water filling those areas (Osterkamp et al. 2009).

A single, plump cloudberry.



The customary and traditional harvests of wild resources continue to make major contributions to the well-being of many rural Alaska communities. Comprehensive subsistence surveys contain a wealth of information about this priority use of Alaska’s wild resources; the continued documentation of these uses will only increase in importance in light of climate change and declines in the abundance of certain keystone species like salmon. These data provide opportunities for assessment of potential changes in harvest patterns resulting from numerous factors such as environmental changes, fluctuating abundance of resources, increased regulatory restrictions, and changes to the level of participation in subsistence activities. The long-term observations of Alaskans who have used the land and its resources for generations can teach resource managers a great deal about continuing change across a broad landscape over time. On-going collaborative research between agencies and communities is necessary for the sustainable management of resources and protection of subsistence practices into the future.


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Part of a series of articles titled Commemorating ANILCA at 40.

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve, Yukon - Charley Rivers National Preserve

Last updated: June 23, 2022