ONC helps connect Bethel residents unable to harvest moose with willing hunters
Just as the frenzied salmon fishing season winds down on the Kuskokwim River, it is time to hunt moose. While both harvests are labor intensive, the latter requires moving animals weighing more than half a ton from the tundra to the dinner table. Luckily, the state of Alaska has a program in place to help those who can’t take part in the harvest, allowing someone to hunt on their behalf as a proxy.
Meeting the licensing requirements for proxy moose hunting set by the state is only one step in the process, and there are plenty of logistical challenges involved with getting moose from point A to point B. This is where Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC), the tribal organization for Bethel, has been lending a helping hand for more than three decades.
According to ONC’s director of natural resources, Alissa Nadine Rogers, the proxy moose hunt program is stronger than ever.
"This is the biggest moose program ONC has ever seen. We started off with just a couple, and today we have roughly about 100 proxies and about 20 hunters so far," Rogers said.
To qualify as a recipient, you must either be blind, 70% physically disabled, 65 years or older, or developmentally disabled. Proxy hunters can be as young as 10 years old and must agree to personally deliver all salvageable parts of the animal to their recipients within 30 days of harvesting. Hunters must also immediately destroy the antlers of bull moose, a regulation in place to discourage the proxy program being used as a means of trophy hunting.
The window for taking moose in the management zone where Bethel lies was just eight days this year. According to natural resources technician Kara Domnick, ONC was able to facilitate successful proxy hunts for five bull moose before hunting closed on Sept. 8.
"There were a lot of people who told us that they weren’t interested in hunting because they wanted to catch for themselves," Domnick said. "And then we had a couple hunters who came back halfway through the season saying they were successful for their families and they wanted to go out again. They picked up a proxy and went out for our Elders after they were finished."
Proxy hunting is a purely volunteer endeavor, and Rogers said that it is well-aligned with cultural tradition.
"Being a hunter myself, I feel like it’s my obligation to help other people in need," Rogers said. "And it’s traditionally taught in our cultural values as Yup'iks and by my grandparents."
Hunters serving as proxies for Bethel residents through ONC’s program may only possess one permit at a time, but are allowed to conduct multiple proxy hunts. Proxy hunting is an opportunity for hunters to spend more time out on the tundra practicing subsistence harvesting, while bringing high-quality protein to recipients to offset soaring supermarket prices in Bethel. Serving as a proxy hunter can also be a chance to make a personal connection.
"Most of our hunters this season were able to bring the moose directly to their recipients. They got to meet who they were hunting for," Domnick said. "Some of the recipients are single elderly women and they don’t necessarily need a whole moose, so sometimes they’ll be able to drop off different parts of the moose to multiple Elders as well."
Grace Kugler recently came to Bethel through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to also serve as a natural resources technician at ONC. Her first month away from home has been spent getting hands-on with the proxy moose hunt program alongside Rogers and Domnick.
"Something that we’ve talked about amongst ourselves that we’d like to send out appreciation for is people who have come from other villages outside of Bethel to come hunt for people," Kugler said. "That’s just so generous of them and we really appreciate that."
The ONC proxy moose hunt team said that the hard work has only started, given that the winter moose hunt on the lower Yukon River is far less restricted and increased interest in the proxy program is anticipated.
In addition to being heavily populated with moose, there are advantages to the winter hunt in terms of spotting, shooting, meat spoilage, and travel. Management of that zone, known as the Game Unit 18 Remainder, is aimed at reducing an abundant population that is on track to outgrow its winter food source.
"It’s also easier for hunters because there’s more accessibility. If you catch one in the trees you don’t need to walk through marsh to carry it," Domnick said. "You can drive right up to it and it’s easier to see through the brush."
Given the opportunities to harvest moose in Western Alaska throughout the winter, ONC is ready and willing to help get as many people involved as possible.
"Even if you’re at the store and you’re like, 'I heard about your program we would like to be signed up,' we can sign you up right there," Rogers said.
When it comes to bringing moose to those in need, Rogers described becoming a proxy hunter as the icing on the cake for those already out practicing subsistence harvesting or simply enjoying the outdoors.
Those interested in becoming a proxy hunter or recipient can reach Alissa Nadine Rogers by phone directly at 907-306-4345, or they can stop by the ONC offices at 117 Alex Hatley Drive to sign up.