Hunting and fishing provide food security in the time of COVID-19

Hunting and fishing provide food security in the time of COVID-19

But virus fears and travel restrictions could impact big game season in the fall.

By Nick Bowlin - April 29, 2020 - Originally published in High Country News

LIKE MILLIONS OF AMERICANS, Paul Kemper lost his job in early April. Unlike many of his fellow citizens, though, he was not overly worried about food, even as canned goods raced from the shelves and flour became as precious as white gold. Kemper, 26, of Bozeman, Montana, is a hunter, and the “four deer and half an elk” that pack his meat freezer provide peace of mind after his sudden loss of income.

“Even when I was working, my grocery bills were low,” he said on the phone in mid-April. “I hadn’t bought red meat in three years. Now, at a time when I’m trying to figure out the next step and what’s coming, I can rest assured that my basic needs are met in terms of food.”

For Kemper, whose job had been in digital marketing, the social distancing requirement meant “staying away from folks by looking for turkeys” on the rolling prairie and wooded river bottoms of eastern Montana. The state’s turkey season opened in the second week of April, and he preferred hunting to sitting on his couch binge-watching Tiger King, the garish, captivating Netflix documentary about the world of big-cat breeders that became a quarantine hit. “Not to be holier-than-thou,” he said with a laugh. “I definitely watched Tiger King.” 

Kemper embodies one of the myriad ways that the COVID-19 epidemic and its attendant fallout — social, economic, political — have impacted hunting and angling culture and industry across the Western U.S. It’s a mosaic of consequences, from individual eating habits to state budgets. While hunters like Kemper take comfort in their meat freezers, state park and wildlife officials and professional outfitters hope against hope that travel restrictions will have eased by fall, when big game season brings out-of-state hunters and their crucial revenue. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, tribal nations are seeing a reinforced understanding of the importance of their subsistence fishing rights, as the spring salmon begin to run upriver to spawn. Willie Frank, a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe in Washington who sits on the tribal council, said self-sufficient food access was one of the first things he brought up when the social distancing began.

“I knew that if we couldn’t get to the grocery store, or we got to the point where people couldn’t leave their houses, we’d still have our ceremonial fisheries,” he said. “It’s a good wakeup call for not just the tribe, but for everyone — the way we rely on Safeway and Fred Meyers.”

SPRING IS NOT a major hunting season; wild turkeys, bear in some states and small mammals are the only animals available, and they’re not the sort of large game to rely on for food during an economic crisis. Even so, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have sparked an increased interest in hunting and meat access. Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said that he’s heard “over and over” from his organization’s members that “people are thinking about where they get their food and how they get their food.”

What this means for big game season remains unclear. In Colorado, the application period for elk and deer licenses opened in late February and closed in early April — a stretch that overlapped with the rise and crescendo of the coronavirus panic. Dan Zadra, an employee of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that he and his colleagues assumed the number would be down compared to previous years. For most of March, that looked to be the case. Then, in the first week of April, Zadra said the “phone started ringing off the hook,” and the number of applications spiked. Ultimately, Colorado saw an increase in big game license applications for 2020. Several factors are at play here, including recent policy changes in how the state licenses hunters and the healthy economy pre-coronavirus. As for the early April call surge, “maybe part of it’s that people were sitting on their couches and didn’t have much to do,” Zadra said. But a renewed desire to secure one’s own food could account for some of it, he added.

According to Zadra, many of the calls about licenses came from non-state residents, who wanted to know whether travel restrictions would be lifted by the fall. These restrictions hindered Colorado hunting and angling travel this spring for residents and non-residents alike, while states like Wyoming and Montana limited turkey and fishing licenses to in-state residents. Washington took a harder line, suspending all spring hunting and fishing seasons — a controversial decision, as the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported. Currently, states are allowing out-of-state license applications for the fall big game season, but it’s easy to imagine that any sort of second outbreak or persistently high infection rate could cause the travel bans to slam back into place. Zadra could offer no certainty, which angered some callers. “Some people were nice and some people were not,” he said. Like many other Western states, Colorado’s parks and conservation agencies rely on permit purchases — especially from out-of-state hunters, who pay higher fees. In recent years, hunting and angling payments have accounted for about 70% of Colorado’s wildlife agency annual revenue.

Any restriction on big game season would be a blow not only to agency budgets, but also to hunting and fishing outfitters like Adam Gall of Hotchkiss, a small town in western Colorado. A former high school science teacher, Gall makes the bulk of his annual income from guiding river trips in the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness and elk hunts on the Uncompahgre Plateau. In general, he said, virus shutdowns have allowed “people to spend more time on public lands and waters,” though with schools closed, he has been devoting most of his own time to his two young daughters.

Non-Coloradans comprise most of Gall’s clients, and he fears a business decline, whether due to formal travel restrictions or residual hesitancy following the virus’s spring spread. It’s difficult, he added, to report lost income when a prospective client cancels a trip.

“It’s a legitimate source of anxiety right now that hunters we have booked will cancel,” he said. “I’m fearful that that’s going to be coming down the pipe this summer, but I don’t have any way to prepare for it. And that late in the season, it’ll be hard to fill those slots.”

TALK TO HUNTERS and anglers for long, and they often mention the pleasure that comes from sharing whatever they catch or shoot. Kemper, the Montana hunter, called sharing food with friends “one of (his) favorite things.” For tribes in the Pacific Northwest, the capacity to share meat was an important part of the early response to the coronavirus. Willie Frank said the Nisqually tribal council gave away more than 300 fish filets in early March. Shawn Yannity, chairman of fisheries for the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians of Washington, described a similar dynamic.

“As soon as the pandemic hit,” he said, “we started getting calls from members: ‘Hey, do you have any elk meat or fish left over in the community bank?’ ”

Like many Northwest tribes, the Nisqually and Stillaguamish hold treaty rights for subsistence, commercial and ceremonial fishing and have co-management authority of the fisheries. Frank said that, if food access had become dire due to the pandemic, he and others were prepared to use the subsistence fisheries to feed the community. When the Nisqually fishing season opens in August, the catch will go to replacing the meat stores depleted in March.

“If we need fish, if elders need fish, all we need is one net, and we can get fish,” Frank said. Frank’s father, Billie Frank Jr., was an iconic figure in the so-called Fish Wars of the 1960s and 1970s, when Indigenous fishermen engaged in civil disobedience by practicing their treaty-held fishing rights. He was arrested more than 50 times for fishing on the Nisqually River. Today, Frank hopes recent events help his long-held goal of creating a sovereign food program — not just fishing, but also root and berry foraging, clam and geoduck harvesting, and elk hunting.

Yannity wants something similar. Chinook salmon levels have been in decline for decades, due to habitat loss, commercial overfishing and other factors. The Stillaguamish tribe’s chinook salmon 2020 fishing quota is only 30 fish, and the catch limits make it hard, he said, to promote interest in subsistence fishing practices. But due to the food-security fears spawned by COVID-19, Yannity described a surge of interest in hunting, fishing and meat curing classes. “People are really interested in putting fish away because of this pandemic.”

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