How Subsistence Hunting Works

By: Sarah Siddons
A whitetailed deer buck in golden light.
Most hunters would kill this whitetail buck for its antlers, but subsistence hunters would use it for food they need to survive.
iStockphoto/Paul Tessier

Chances are that when you pack u­p you­r gear to go hunting, it's for sport or trophies. You like the thrill of the hunt, the sport of taking down a majestic animal, the glory of nabbing the biggest buck. You probably don't just leave the animal there after you kill it -- you eat the meat and maybe even use the pelts. But even so, your primary reason for hunting is the sport of it. If you don't nab a deer in your afternoon out, you leave disappointed and a bit frustrated, but you'll be able to rustle up some grub from your refrigerator when you get home.

For subsistence hunters, that's not always the case. Subsistence hunters hunt strictly to provide food for themselves and their families. Simply put, it's hunting for survival. Though it used to be a way of life in America -- and still is in many countries -- for most, the need for subsistence hunting is dwindling.


­Subsistence hunting is not without its detractors, however. It takes place on federally managed land in the United States, so it can kill animals on refuges and preserves. Additionally, some argue that hunting for meat is not necessary for survival. In many parts of the world, for economical or religious reasons, people don't eat meat. Others are vegetarians for personal or health reasons. You can make the argument, then, that if millions can subsist without meat, no one really needs it for survival. However, as you read about subsistence locations later in the article, Alaska is the hub for it in the United States. Because of the arctic weather and often rugged landscape, individual farming may not be a realistic option, and neighborhood grocery stores can be few and far between. But others question how much meat is really necessary for a family. No one keeps tabs on how people subsistence hunt, what game they are shooting and how much they take.

In this article you'll learn about subsistence hunting locations and regulations. Planning a move up to Alaska? Read on to learn about where you can subsistence hunt.


Subsistence Hunting Locations

­There ar­e subsistence hunting locations all over the world - it's a way of life in many poorer countries - but in the United States, subsistence hunters are basically limited to Alaska. And there are a few limitations within Alaska as to where subsistence hunters may go for food.

Most federally managed public lands in Alaska can be used for subsistence hunting. These include 34 "conservation system units," which include national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, national reserves, national conservation areas, national recreation lands, and national wild and scenic rivers [source: Subsistence Management Information]. There are a few places, however, where even subsistence hunters aren't allowed to snare a kill. Subsistence hunting is prohibited in Glacier Bay National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, most of Katmai National Park and the pre-1980 section of Denali National Park.


In addition, after a 1992 state court decision that expanded eligibility for subsistence hunters, the Board of Fisheries and the Board of Game stepped up and took action to make sure resources weren't overly depleted. They reviewed areas that they believed to be "nonrural." Such areas were established communities in which subsistence hunting was not a necessity. These areas were around Fairbanks, Anchorage-Mat-Su-Kenai, Juneau and Ketchikan. Later, the boards added the area around Valdez to the list [source: Subsistence Management Information].

Although more people are now eligible for subsistence hunting, there are still regulations and rules -- and they vary depending on whether you're on a state-managed subsistence area or a federally managed one. Read on to find out the particular regulations of subsistence hunting.


Subsistence Hunting Regulations

Moving­ to Alaska? Then you'll be eligible to subsistence hunt and fish -- with a few exceptions, of course.

­All Alaska residents are eligible to subsistence hunt and fish on state lands and waters, as well as private lands. State residence is determined by the location of your primary, permanent residence. If your summer cottage is in Alaska, you're out of luck. In addition, if you just moved to the state, don't take out your hunting rifles yet. To qualify, you must live in Alaska for 12 consecutive months and have the intent to remain indefinitely.


However, even if you fall under the regulations and qualifications of an Alaska resident and are eligible, not all Alaskans may qualify. Because the state must protect fish and wildlife populations that are dwindling or limited, it may not allow every Alaska resident to subsistence hunt.

On most federal lands and waters, only rural Alaska residents may subsistence hunt based on federal regulations. About 20 percent of Alaska's population lived in rural areas in 1999, and from 1978 to 1989, only they qualified for subsistence hunting [source: Wolfe]. Generally, these rural residents can only fish or hunt on federal subsistence areas near where they live in order to keep the loss of wildlife on protected lands and refuges at a minimum. However, on those federal areas not restricted by federal managers, any Alaskan can subsistence hunt or fish [source: Subsistence Management Information].

Although it's not as widespread in the United States as it used to be, subsistence hunting and fishing are required for some, and it remains unlikely to disappear all together. For more information, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Rel­ated HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Miscellaneous Game Regulations. Alaska Department of Fish and Game. (Accessed 12/8/08)
  • Subsistence Hunting in Alaska. ThinkQuest. (Accessed 12/8/08)
  • Subsistence Management in Alaska. Subsistence Management Information. 1/30/07. (Accessed 12/8/08)
  • Subsistence User's Guide. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Accessed 12/8/08)
  • Wolfe, Robert J. Subsistence in Alaska: A Year 2000 Update. Division of Subsistence, Alaska Department of Fish and Game. March 2000. (Accessed 12/8/08)