Seasons Out of Balance: Climate Change Impacts, Vulnerability, and Sustainable Adaptation in Interior Alaska

Shannon M. McNeeley
Posted on: 12/05/2013 - Updated on: 3/27/2024

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Shannon McNeeley

Project Summary

Koyukon Elders of Alaska’s Interior observe that “cold weather is growing old” and recent warming is contributing to a world out of balance. Alaska is among the most rapidly warming places globally, with the Interior experiencing the most pronounced warming statewide, and with significant regional-scale ecosystem services disruptions affecting subsistence hunting and harvest success. Vulnerability of individuals, households, and communities to climate change is exacerbated by rising energy costs and a regulatory system that constrains the adaptive flexibility needed to cope with impacts on livelihoods. Socioeconomic and cultural change notwithstanding, the well-being of rural native communities is still dependent on access and ability to harvest wild foods, with moose the example explored in this study. In the fall of 2004, there was a convergence during the moose hunting season of warming climatic conditions with social, political, and ecological events and conditions that affected the ability of subsistence hunters in the region to successfully harvest moose. By combining indigenous observations and understanding of climate and western social/natural sciences, this study examines the complex, multi-scaled interaction of climate change and subsistence livelihoods, with the goal of understanding vulnerability and adaptive capacity in the Koyukuk-Middle Yukon (KMY) region.


The valleys and flatlands of the KMY region of the northwest Interior of Alaska are comprised of wetlands that provide excellent habitat for waterfowl, fish, and water mammals such as beavers and muskrats.

Forests are mostly spruce, willow, and birch trees, where moose, bears, and wolves roam. The region comprises 11 villages and an area of approximately 50,000 square miles, encompassing four national wildlife refuges and two game management units. Subsistence on wild fish and game is the central element of the local cash-subsistence economy. Dependence on wild foods is high providing about 57% of the total calories and 396% of required protein needs. Of the wild foods harvested, moose is the most important big game animal in the region. Over the last decade, communities in the KMY region report an inability to satisfy their needs for harvesting moose before the hunting season closes, citing warmer falls, changing water levels, and the regulatory framework as primary causes. A combination of factors, including the complicated dual state/federal management system for wildlife and subsistence, creates uncertainties about the sustainability of moose populations and subsistence livelihoods in the region.

In the winter of 2004 I began traveling to various villages in the KMY region to present ideas to the tribal councils and ask for their support and partnership in the project. The timing was impeccable as the village Elders were increasingly voicing their concerns about the changes they were witnessing and a series of workshops between scientists and Koyukon communities were taking place in Huslia on changes in weather and fires. This was also the time when warming impacts on the fall moose hunt were increasingly problematic in the region, and a topic of interest for not just people in the villages, but for government agencies as well since the issue was surfacing in the wildlife and subsistence regulatory setting. Warmer temperatures cause the moose to start “moving” later, meaning they take longer to move from their summer areas to the fall and winter areas where hunters encounter them for harvesting. This creates a “closing window” for hunters and harvest success because the timing of bull movements determines when and where they can be encountered on the landscape (McNeeley and Shulski 2011). When fall seasonality shifts later, yet the regulatory window for legal harvest remains the same, hunters cannot legally take moose when the conditions allow. Village hunters face two risks they must decide between: 1) do not harvest moose, which is a threat to food security, and 2) illegal harvest, which could result in major fines and revocation of hunting licenses.

Warmer falls continued for the next three years from 2005 through 2007, so the issue became increasingly urgent as communities had difficulties harvesting this most critical subsistence food. Conflict arose over how to devise solutions for this problem and the focus of my research was to understand:

  • What climate trends can be detected during the fall moose hunt?
  • How is climate interacting with social and ecological variables to affect vulnerability to climate during the fall moose hunt?
  • How is the wildlife and subsistence regulatory system responding to early fall seasonality changes?


The analytical framework and approach of this six-year, three-phase study was a place-based, participatory Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity Assessment (VA). This approach employs historical data to establish baseline vulnerability and adaptive capacity and contributes to practical adaptation initiatives. VA assessment entails understanding the phenomena and main processes involved in the social-ecological system and identifying relationships and key resources susceptible to harm (e.g., food, financial, or energy resources).

Phase 1 began with attending in-community workshops in the native village of Huslia on changes in weather in 2003-2004. I began interviews and focus groups in 2004 with village Elders in Hughes, Huslia, and Koyukuk.

Phase 2 was conducted through a collaboration between me and individuals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Climate Research Center (ACRC). Climatological, local indigenous observations and biological datasets were integrated by asking questions specifically relevant to Interior Athabascan communities, to management issues of USFWS refuge managers and biologists, and to the ACRC in their role as a service organization with a mandate to respond to inquiries from stakeholders on climate. This phase of the research was necessary to document observations and to identify patterns of regional climate change in order to have the appropriate context to discuss the broader issues of vulnerability and adaptation to global environmental change on a regional level.

Phase 3 entailed observing advisory committee meetings, conference calls, informal discussions with agency managers, biologists, and local advisory committee chairs and members. The purpose of this phase was to understand the regulatory system from a broader perspective that included all the stakeholders in an effort to analyze barriers and opportunities for adaptation strategies.

The uniqueness of this study is the unusual “buy in” and involvement of a full spectrum of stakeholders, although with commitments from each varying in scope and degree as is to be expected. I had formal partnerships with three of the tribal councils in Hughes, Huslia, and Koyukuk, therefore, I spent the most of the time in those three villages. However, I also spent considerable time in Galena and made brief visits to Nulato, Ruby, Bettles/Evansville, and Tanana to participate in wildlife and subsistence regulatory meetings. This involvement included not only Alaska Native communities, tribal councils, Elders, and youth, but also the state agency the Alaska Department of Game and Fish biologists, managers, subsistence specialists; USFWS (biologist, managers, etc.); and climatologists. Most of these stakeholders operate within the institution of subsistence and wildlife management and understand that biophysical changes in Interior Alaska are in part a consequence of a warming climate and changing environment. These stakeholders differ in goals, mandates, jurisdiction, populations of interest, etc., but share a common goal of sustainable adaptation to climate change.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Indigenous observers in the KMY region report that warmer temperatures during early fall (i.e. late August/September) affect the fall moose hunt, which legally ends on September 25th every year. The existing regulatory system limits moose hunting practices to a specific window of opportunity, which, when combined with the timing of temperature and precipitation and moose behavior, combine to create major challenges for these subsistence communities to sufficiently harvest moose (McNeeley 2012). This complex interplay of climate, agency intervention, and rural community needs, increases vulnerability because of a “closing window” during the critical fall harvest.

Climate change concerns have largely been left out of regulatory planning and management to date. The stakeholders in the KMY need to implement collective, strategic action that brings climate change into focus in the context of subsistence and wildlife management. Successful or sustainable adaptation to climate change can be evaluated by strategic actions and their effectiveness (robustness to uncertainty and flexibility), efficiency (distribution of costs and benefits, nonmarket values, and timing of adaptation actions), legitimacy (extent to which all stakeholders view decisions as legitimate), and equity. In this case, efficiency would be achieved through streamlining the regulatory process, resulting in a reduction in regulatory proposals and emergency orders/special requests to the Board of Game and Federal Subsistence Board to extend the fall moose hunting season. From the agency manager’s perspective, efficiency would also come in the reduction in noncompliance and illegal harvest to better achieve shared conservation goals. This requires a system with legitimacy that addresses local subsistence needs and acknowledges local community conservation strategies. Equity and legitimacy from the local village perspective are based on ability to successfully harvest and meet subsistence needs of families, households, and communities. As long as locals feel they are being constrained by the system, noncompliance will continue defeating management goals.

Enhancing In-season Management
There is a great need for “in-season” management tools so that hunters and managers can take into account the changing climatic conditions each year. Currently, managers cannot proactively respond when conditions push the season back later in September, and the only recourse for hunters is to submit an emergency order or special action request to the state and federal game boards, which have been voted down the majority of times. An alternative to the current system could be explored whereby managers work with weather and climate forecasters and subsistence specialists to try to both anticipate and respond to both climate conditions and village harvest success during each season. Starting in August conditions could be monitored through both weather station observations as well as IC to assess temperature and precipitation and determine if the season has anomalous conditions that affect moose movement from warm temperatures and/or access to hunting grounds because of a lack of precipitation at the right time resulting in lower water levels. Climate scientists could experiment with managers and hunters by providing seasonal forecasts that could then be “ground truthed” by integrating actual observations made by local stakeholders and weather stations.

As part of the state of Alaska’s Climate Change Strategy, the Natural Systems Technical Working Group (TWG) is an advisory group to the Adaptation Advisory Group (AAG), which is providing recommendations regarding adaptation to climate change to the Governor's Sub-cabinet on Climate Change. In this role, the Natural Systems TWG recommended to the AAG that an adaptive management plan be implemented to include an in-season game harvest management option so that managers can respond appropriately to climatic change impacts such as the fall warming and impacts during the moose rut (NSTWG 2009). The plan outlines an idea for a working group to submit a proposal to the Board of Game to allow managers to have authority to extend the hunting season when conditions warrant the need for more hunting opportunity. The plan accurately acknowledges the problems for locals and mangers by identifying that hunting seasons:

Restricted to inopportune periods may hinder harvest success of wild game as a food source, complicate care of meat in the field, force unsafe travel, or encourage illegal hunting during closed periods, especially where subsistence harvest is critical in remote communities… some rural residents perceive a lack of concern by management agencies and regulatory authorities, which will hinder the cooperation necessary for effective harvest management and wildlife conservation in remote areas.

In order to make this a viable proposal, however, the plan overlooks some potential roadblocks for making this a successful venture. Some suggestions for improving the plan include:

  • Including additional experts, such as climate experts, social scientists/subsistence experts, local indigenous expert observers, and indigenous knowledge experts to achieve a more balanced and interdisciplinary proposal process;
  • Enhancing the language regarding regulatory flexibility and adaptive capacity to permit harvest season extensions to meet subsistence needs for rural communities; and 
  • Reassessing the emphasis on the harvest reporting system as an effective tool in measuring subsistence demands, as increased reporting does not necessarily indicate that subsistence needs are being met.

Implementation of in-season management would also require devising ways to streamline not only the regulatory process but also the policy implementation. Additional hunting opportunity costs agencies money, yet typically does not come with an increase in budget. This acts as a disincentive for agency managers when already stretched and limited budgets are sapped by additional hunting opportunities. Another difficulty state and federal agency representatives face is informing the public about complicated regulations so it would be difficult to keep people updated on changing regulations within a flexible in-season management structure. Some mechanism for two-way communication between managers and hunters would need to be devised. One idea might be to have community village communication brokers who could act as the liaisons between agencies and hunters, and who would monitor hunting success to report to managers while updating villagers as to how the regulatory window was adjusting to seasonal conditions.

Through the incorporation of cultural understandings of human-environment relationships that include, for example, Koyukon views on hutlaanee and luck, management and regulations would be more inclusive of local perspectives, which would improve the ability to meet management goals. This would include incorporating local ideas about what these views mean not just in terms of conservation outcomes but also for management and regulatory processes. If locals felt their cultural views and practices were respected and incorporated into management this would help build the social capital (relationships, trust, sharing of knowledge) so crucial for cooperative, collective action and planning to adapt to future climate change.

Updating the Koyukuk River Moose Management Plan
A strategic planning effort is needed to update the Koyukuk River Moose Management Plan to account for how social-ecological and climatological conditions have changed over the last decade. A planning effort must better integrate issues of climate and culture (than the plan did) to cultivate and nurture social and institutional capital and build a more responsive, flexible regulatory and management system. This effort should include the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Subsistence Division in a leadership role and including climate experts - not just physical scientists but those who study, social-ecological impacts, vulnerability and adaptation and the important social and political issues that currently constrain sustainable adaptation. An improved system for collecting harvest data through a combination of household surveys and harvest tickets would be beneficial, but only insofar as there is some way to reconcile the differences, which would require adequate staff time and funding to support along with the other research and planning efforts here.

A planning effort would focus on not just shared goals but the processes by which to achieve those goals. Inattention to the latter is a source of conflict where interpretation of how best to achieve goals differs. Processual equity is as important, if not more so, than the outcomes as it determines those outcomes through fortifying social capital – a process that is culturally sensitive, inclusive, iterative, and transparent – in how decisions are made. Gaps in knowledge and understanding must be made explicit and transparent.

Increasing Research on Harvest Reporting and Subsistence Needs

Research on harvest reporting would help to reconcile the disconnect between what might look to some like an increase in or steady harvest, but could instead be increased reporting from the past. Conducting household surveys for moose and other big game as those carried out by the ADF&G Subsistence Division from 1997-2003 are critical for this effort. More attention placed on whether needs are being met as opposed to focusing just on how many moose are harvested would go a long way in helping managers make decisions that both conserve the moose population and help local stakeholders meet their subsistence needs. This would work toward the effort of building social capital through increased trust, communication, and implementation of actions toward shared goals.

Socio-economic research on how meat is distributed within the villages, between villages, and between rural and urban areas would be a step in this direction. This would necessarily include methods to estimate distribution of pounds of meat, not just harvested moose. This would give a more accurate understanding of sharing and distribution patterns of subsistence harvesters in the region and overall food security. Too many assumptions are made on anecdotal evidences such as how much meat is donated by nonlocal, trophy hunters, quantity of meat that leaves the region, or quantity of meat that actually ends up in household freezers.


This research demonstrates the importance of indigenous observations and understanding of climate in helping to identify these important nuances that might be missed in conventional scientific analysis. It is the Koyukon worldview based on a deep respect and close relationship with Nature that sustains them today despite contemporary health problems, periodic food shortages, and the sometimes overwhelming social, political, and economic problems that threaten their livelihoods in modern times. The Koyukon are a society that depends directly on harvesting natural resources in a region where warming effects are already tangible; and I came to find out early on that they are among the best teachers in the world for understanding how climate change is affecting our planet. They taught me the importance of looking outside the traditional academic boundaries of science for understanding, while at the same time being able to integrate and reconcile very different ways of seeing the world.

For more details, please read Seasons Out of Balance, found in the Project Documents.


McNeeley, S.M. (2013). Seasons Out of Balance: Climate Change Impacts, Vulnerability, and Sustainable Adaptation in Interior Alaska. [Excerpts taken from McNeeley, S.M., 2009: Seasons Out of Balance: Climate Change Impacts, Vulnerability, and Sustainable Adaptation in Interior Alaska, Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Alaska Fairbanks]. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated December 2013)


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