Alaska’s Remote Tribes Call for Emergency Hunting Permits During the Pandemic

April 17, 2020 Off By Jelisa Castrodale

The tiny city of Kake, Alaska covers just under eight square miles of land on Kupreanof Island, one of the remote islands that make up southeastern Alaska's Alexander Archipelago. It's one of only two real settlements on the island, and because it isn't on any road system, it's only accessible by a twice-a-week state ferry, or by plane. ("Except for weather-related interruptions," a U.S. Department of Transportation website says of the daily flights.)

But Alaska hasn't been exempt from the coronavirus pandemic—it wasn't even the last U.S. state to report a confirmed case—and as of this writing, the state has had 300 confirmed cases and nine deaths attributed to the illness.

Some local government leaders in the state, including tribal leaders, have started to become concerned about interruptions to the supply chain, and what that might mean for the availability of groceries. According to KTOO, supplies are shipped from Seattle to Kake on an Alaska Marine Lines barge—a trip that can take as long as a week—and some recent deliveries have been short on essential items.

As a result, the Tribal President of the Organized Village of Kake has taken the unprecedented step of asking the federal Office of Subsistence Management if residents can get emergency permission to start hunting larger animals out of season. Kake is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest which, at more than 17 million acres, is the biggest national forest in the United States.

"We have not [made a request like this before]," Tribal President Joel Jackson told VICE in an email. "We have two stores, one regular store, and another that is smaller. There have been problems getting orders filled from their suppliers, fresh meat, dairy products and other things, so the request was made to have something in place to ensure we have a plan if the stores continue to have problems getting meat."

Deer and moose seasons don't start until later this year, but Jackson is trying to get the OK for village residents to hunt for their own sustenance now. Unsurprisingly, it's a complicated, bureaucratic process.

"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," Ryan Scott, the assistant director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation said. "However, we need to consider the biological implications of that as well."

Earlier this month, the ADF&G closed all black and brown bear hunts in the state through May 31, but subsistence hunts are still allowed "as a way for residents to have an opportunity to fill freezers and provide for families."

For Jackson and some residents of Kake, the ability to hunt seems even more essential right now. "Processed meat is not near the quality of the fresh meat of moose and deer," he said. "At this time our traditional foods are what our elders and tribal citizens need to ensure their immune systems are strong [...] We, or anyone else for that matter, don't know how long this pandemic will last, and if we are experiencing supply shortages already, we need something in place to provide for our people."