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.

 

While hunters are experiencing more food security in times of uncertain supply due to COVID-19, outfitters and states will see travel restrictions affect their income come fall.
Luna Anna Archey/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.”

Outfitter Adam Gall relies on income from out-of-state hunters he leads on public land hunts. He is unsure how the coming season will play out.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

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.”

Tom Friedrich, Nisqually Tribe salmon biologist, sorts a large chinook at the tribe’s Kalama Creek Hatchery. The tribe gave away more than 300 fish filets in early March.
Courtesy of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

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.”

“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.”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

As a service to readers, High Country News has removed the paywall from all COVID-19 stories. Please consider supporting our work by donatingsubscribing or sending us tips.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...