FAIRBANKS — Congressional debate about Alaska hunting rules in April brought a spotlight on a little-understood Alaska Native technique of hunting bears in dens.

At a November meeting in Anchorage, the issue pitted Alaska Native students fresh from a class on how to defend traditional hunting practices against animal rights activists from Florida drawn to Alaska by an obscure piece of law that says it’s permissible under certain conditions to kill bear cubs. 

Harvesting a bear during its winter hibernation is a way to get fresh bear meat in the winter. It is recognized under Alaska subsistence hunting rules as a “customary and traditional use” of black bears in six Alaska game management units in the western and northern Interior.

The hunt used to be more widely practiced, including in the Tanana Valley. In his 1986 oral history autobiography, Minto Chief Peter John — who was born in 1900 — described hunting bears in dens with a .22-caliber rifle and even with an ax.

Today, finding bears in dens remains important along the Koyukuk River, said Ricko DeWilde, the owner of HYDZ, an Alaska Native-inspired clothing design business in Fairbanks. DeWilde grew up outside of Huslia and returns to the Koyukuk River area for fall hunts, including the search for denning bears.

“We start hunting them around when the leaves fall and they den up. Later on, we’ll check around the rivers for places we think they might be in,” he said.

“Families might check 80 to 100 dens and they might get lucky and maybe get one to five bears.”

Bears are among the most respected of animals among the Koyukon Athabascan people, and there are rules for what parts of the bear women are allowed to the eat, he said. Even talking about bears is frowned upon among some people, he said.

In November, DeWilde was one of 20 students who took a class, Introduction to the Board of Game, offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Tanana Chiefs Conference during the meeting. At the meeting, he testified against a proposal from animal rights organization OneProtest that would have made it illegal for hunters to kill bear cubs, which in practice would have ended den hunting.

The proposal, according to DeWilde and others who testified, was based on the misconception that hunters target young bear cubs. In fact, hunters try not to get dens with cubs, but are obligated to kill the cubs if they find them in a den with a sow.

In April 2017, animal rights advocates around the world turned their attention to Alaska because of an act of Congress that removed some hunting restrictions on federal wildlife refuges in Alaska. The law didn’t affect subsistence, so it actually didn’t change the rules for killing bear cubs.

Volunteers with OneProtest, which is based in Jacksonville, Florida, researched the issue and learned that under a few conditions it’s legal to kill sows with cubs in Alaska, an idea the activists found particularly “barbaric.” A petition organized by the group to outlaw cub hunting in Alaska received nearly 30,000 signatures.

OneProtest was founded to ban bear hunting in Florida, and now has several animal welfare campaigns across the country. In addition to its Alaska campaign, the group has tried to stop bear hunting in New Jersey and to close Mexico’s San Juan de Aragon zoo for poor treatment of animals.

Two OneProtest volunteers traveled to Anchorage in November to ask Alaska’s Board of Game to eliminate the two exceptions for Alaska’s prohibition on killing bear cubs: Alaska’s rules allow the killing of cubs in the Yukon Flats north of Fairbanks under a provision the OneProtest volunteers learned was created because of nuisance bears. In a second, and geographically larger area, the rules allow the killing of cubs in bear den hunts.

The Board of Game voted OneProtest’s proposal down unanimously, which is the board’s usual reaction to proposals from environmental groups. But in a scene unusual in the long and contentious history between animal rights activists and Alaska hunters, the two groups met and found some common ground.

DeWilde, who shook his head and dismissed the OneProtest activists as “super bunny huggers” during their testimony, later talked to them in the hotel lobby.

“They were really open-minded, it turned out. You could tell they really respected the way we live and the respect we had for the animal. There’s a lot that goes into harvesting that animal (bears). That is the most respected animal.”

After the meeting, OneProtest updated its campaign website (oneprotest.org/

bearcubs) with information about its Alaska trip, and created a video apology. The OneProtest activists said they were moved not only by UAF students, including DeWilde, but also by the regional advisory committees from Yupik communities in western Alaska.

“To the Alaskan Native peoples, pitsaqenrita (Yupik for ‘I’m sorry’). We apologize for any offense our initial misunderstanding caused,” a message at the end of the video stated..

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten noticed the interaction between the groups and wrote about it in an opinion column published last month in the Daily News-Miner and newspapers in Anchorage and Juneau. He praised the work of students from the UAF Introduction to the Board of Game class.

“They’ve earned lasting respect from the Alaska Board of Game — and from an Outside group representing different cultural values that ... may have received the greatest education of all,” Cotten wrote.

Back in Florida, one of the OneProtest activists who came to Anchorage said it’s true their trip to Alaska was educational but disagreed with Cotten’s carpetbagger characterization of their group. The group has supporters in Alaska, including a woman in Anchorage who testified with them at the Board of Game meeting, he said.

“Unfortunately, Sam Cotten’s article was factually correct but it left out some important information,” said OneProtest activist Robert Evans. “There were other Alaskans who were supporting this.”

Evans said he’s still interested in working to change Alaska hunting rules in the future, but might take on a different topic, such as Alaska’s predator control policies. If he could do it again, he said, he’d also try to work with Alaska’s regional advisory committees instead of writing his own proposal.

“We would have done more at the grass roots to have the advisory panels do the proposal rather than us,” he said. “It’s got to be coming from Alaskans. There can’t be any perception, even though that wasn’t the case here, that it’s coming from an outside source.”

Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors