Amid food supply chain concerns, tribal governments request emergency hunts

A Sitka black-tailed deer. (Creative Commons photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider)

As uncertainty about COVID-19 continues to mount, tribal governments and remote communities across the state are concerned about disruptions in the food supply chain.

That’s led to numerous requests for emergency hunts, which are now piling up for federal and state agencies.

Last week, Tribal President Joel Jackson made a request on behalf of the Organized Village of Kake for an emergency use permit to hunt deer and moose out of season. The Southeast Alaska village hasn’t made a request like that before.

But as the pandemic plays out, Jackson said grocery store shelves have looked different.

“Pretty empty, and also their dairy products didn’t make it,” he said.

Kake isn’t on a road system. So when an Alaska Marine Lines barge arrived without some of its normal shipments, like meat, Jackson was alarmed.

It can take up to a week for a barge to arrive from Seattle. This system felt fragile before the COVID-19 virus struck.

“You know, if this thing gets any worse and we really get in a bind, then we’re going to be hurting here for a while,” Jackson said.

But Kake has an abundance of wild, local foods at its doorstep: the Tongass National Forest.

The village is requesting emergency access to it, and the community isn’t alone.

Chris McKee, a Wildlife Division supervisor at the federal Office of Subsistence Management, said so far the branch has received six special action requests across the state on federal land — from a mixture of tribal entities, communities and individuals. And McKee anticipates they’ll probably receive more.

His office has handled these types of requests before, like when a storm occurs and a shipment of food is delayed.

But the coronavirus is a different kind of storm, affecting everywhere in Alaska all at once.

“They’re in a unique situation, and the program is in a unique situation of having to respond to — not only how quickly folks want us to take action, but also just the sheer number of requests,” McKee said.

McKee said he understands there’s a lot of anxiety right now.

But the Office of Subsistence Management still has to follow federal regulations. He said they’re working hard to speed up the process so they can quickly grant special actions, if necessary.

“We don’t want to have communities like Kake, and the other folks that we’ve been getting these requests from, to have to sit around for weeks on end to find out to get a decision made,” McKee said. “We’re trying to be as timely as we can. But at this point, I can’t give a specific answer about when that’s going to be.”

This can be a complicated issue for another reason.

The federal subsistence board approves special actions on federal lands, like emergency hunts. And the state of Alaska has its own process for state lands.

Ryan Scott with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said they’ve also received requests from across Alaska. But as long as communities are still receiving shipments of food, and hunting seasons like bear and waterfowl remain open, they’re proceeding carefully. Spring is a time when animals give birth — that’s why deer hunting isn’t open right now.

“I think it’s really easy to say, ‘Open a season and go harvest animals for food,’ and recognize the importance of that and the availability of that. However, we need to consider the biological implications of that as well,” Scott said.

In an emailed statement, the barge company Alaska Marine Lines said “there shouldn’t be any concerns over the food supply chain from the barge perspective” during the pandemic.

But Jackson said for village Elders and families, the situation is about more than food scarcity.

“Right now, the meat we’re getting is processed,” Jackson said. “And that’s not nearly as good our wild resources we have around here, like moose and deer.”

Jackson said people should have access to their traditional foods for optimal health.

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