A bill allowing traditional gull-egg harvests in Glacier Bay is on its way to the president’s desk. It’s the culmination of years of lobbying to resume a centuries-long practice.
The measure is one of 16 included in a package of land-use bills recently passed by the United States Senate. It’s already made it through the House, so it just needs President Obama’s signature to become law.
The bill is called the Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act. Hoonah, 40 miles west of Juneau, is across Icy Strait from Glacier Bay. Many current residents are Tlingits who call the area their ancestral home. (Huna is the traditional spelling; Hoonah is contemporary.)
During a congressional hearing earlier this year, Hoonah Indian Association Tribal Administrator Robert Starbard said the bill will restore a practice that should have never been blocked.
“Since time immemorial, the collection of gull eggs on South Marble Island and elsewhere in Glacier Bay has been a traditional cultural practice of the Tlingit people,” he said.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was established in 1925. Harvesting continued until the 1960s, when a migratory bird treaty and park regulations changed the rules.
(Read about Tlingit history in Glacier Bay.)
Limited harvests have been allowed. But Starbard says they should be managed by Hoonah Tlingits, not federal agencies.
“What is being conserved is not biodiversity in the abstract, but a living community that requires, as a condition of its continued existence, the sustainable management of the resources on which it depends,” he said.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young authored versions of the bill, with support from Senator Mark Begich. It’s been in the works for several years.
The gull-egg act has been opposed by the Sierra Club.
Lindsey Hajduk is with that organization.
“The members of the Sierra Club Alaska Chapter had been somewhat concerned about just the precedent of allowing any collection of wildlife from any national park,” she said.
Board member Jack Hession campaigned against the gull-egg bill.
“There is a risk that if Glacier Bay is opened Alaska Native people living around these other parks might seek the same privilege. And who knows how far this could go,” Hession said in a 2011 interview. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
He said several locations outside the park and closer to Hoonah were better collection sites.
But Hajduk says the club stepped back from that position.
“I think it’s a safe assessment to say that it’s not up to us where we recommend traditional collection of subsistence resources. It’s really up to those tribes and tribal members that are engaged in it to decide,” she said.
The act applies to only glaucous-winged gulls, among the most common of Southeast’s seabirds. It also limits the number and location of egg harvests. (Read more about egg harvesting in the bay.)