On Friday, Wildlife Officer Michael Whitney stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling map of Alaska and pointed out each of the Delta villages he works with. "We cover up there, to the coast," he said. "Up through Scammon Bay, Hooper Bay, Kotlik..."
It took him several minutes to list all of them. Michael Whitney is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new, and only, law enforcement officer. You might have spotted him checking nets on the Kuskokwim this summer, or camping out in a schoolhouse in Eek before meeting with community members. Before Whitney joined the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in May, the region had gone without a federal wildlife officer for several years. Today, Whitney polices about 19 million acres of tundra by himself - an area about the size of the state of Maine, where he grew up.
"Yeah, it’s been non-stop," Whitney said with a laugh. "It's like drinking from the firehose."
As the Delta’s only federal enforcement officer, Whitney depends on local communities to comply with regulations on their own, or to give him a call when someone breaks the rules. He said that he feels lucky to work in western Alaska, where subsistence hunters and fishermen are so deeply connected to the land and local species.
"I think it's pretty wonderful," said Whitney. "I think that within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I have this really cool job. We have this great duty to the subsistence-using public out here in western Alaska, and that’s really neat."
As a child in Maine, Whitney spent his summers with lobster fishermen in a small, coastal village. He said that he knows what it’s like to rely on the sea for your livelihood. For Whitney, fishing and hunting regulations are an essential part of maintaining a subsistence lifestyle.
"We’re trying to preserve these species for future generations," he said. "In the absence of regulation, you can reach a point where the survival of that particular species can become critical. And if you can’t save that species, then you’ve taken away a person’s ability to feed their family."
In addition to enforcing regulations, Whitney also plans to focus on community outreach. He said that he hopes to teach hunting education and other classes to local residents.
This story is part of a KYUK series that profiles new leadership in the Delta's criminal justice system. Click here to read our previous profiles of Police Chief Burke Waldron, District Attorney Stephen Wallace and Judge Nathaniel Peters.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Whitney polices 19 million square miles of tundra, rather than 19 million acres. We regret the error.