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A nationwide shotgun shell shortage is making it difficult for Y-K Delta hunters to harvest spring migratory birds

A tundra swan in northern Alaska
A tundra swan in northern Alaska
A tundra swan in northern Alaska

A shortage of shotgun shells nationwide is complicating things for migratory bird hunters in Southwest Alaska, who are eager to get out after a long winter. The arrival of geese, ducks, and swans in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a sure sign of spring. It’s also a great relief for people who’ve been eating out of their freezers all winter. Those birds are the source of the first fresh meat in months.

“I do soup, I pot roast it, I bake it. It depends on how i want to prepare it,” said Ronnie Turner from Holy Cross. He’s using shells left over from last year, but he hasn’t been able to buy any at the store in months. “People that travel to different villages will get shells if there’s any in stock,” he said. “ The only place I know in our area right here was Grayling, and they were limited to hunters for one box per hunter,” Turner said.

It’s not only hard to get shells in rural Alaska; outfitters in Anchorage are also having a tough time stocking them. There were a few different kinds of shells in stock at Cabela’s in Anchorage earlier this month, but management there said it’s hard to keep shells for long. Maybe about three days, or a week at most. A case of shells can cost between $200 and $300, which does not include up to $100 dollars more in shipping. Cabela’s isn’t filling bush orders.

In Kwethluk, Caleb Uttereyuk is going to the local store, where he buys two boxes everyday. “Right now, I’m stockpiling boxes of shells,” he said. “Because right after these geese we have other birds that come in, like black ducks. We usually call them white winged scooters.”

In Bethel, Sam Berlin has already been out hunting this spring, but he’s holding on to his last four boxes of shells until later in the year when the birds are fatter. But he may not even have to use his shells. Instead, he might go out with a net for young birds that can’t yet fly.

“It's totally different from shooting and all that,” Berlin said. “And there's unique ways how to approach [the species] of ducks. When you're going to corner them and then set out your net, there's certain ways to do it. And it isn't easy. It's not easy,” he said.

Using a net is legal, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does have special regulations during the subsistence harvest season. Berlin hunts for a large extended family, and the traditional method using nets he learned from his father might carry extra value this year as the ammunition shortage persists. “So I'm not really, really worried about it because that type of subsistence harvest is still available if one knows how to do it,” Berlin said.

One thing that does have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife concerned is the use of toxic lead shot, which has been illegal for migratory bird hunting in the U.S. since 1991. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trading out lead shells for steel ever since. Hunters can trade lead shot for steel at no cost at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

The shortage of shotgun shells isn’t unique to Alaska. Between January 2020 and April 1 of this year, more than 5 million Americans purchased guns for the first time, and many people have opted to stockpile ammunition. Ammunition has been hard to come by since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020.

Corrected: May 19, 2022 at 4:45 PM AKDT
The spelling of Caleb Uttereyuk has been corrected. An earlier version of this story spelled the name Caleb Uttereyuq.
Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.