Village mushers worry dogs may face starvation

Posted: Tuesday, December 01, 2009

FAIRBANKS - Another poor chum salmon catch this year is making it hard for mushers in Fort Yukon to feed their sled dogs.

Anthony Shewfelt said he has about a month's worth of food for his 22 sled dogs. If food gets too scarce, Shewfelt said, he will try to sell his dogs or give them away.

If he cannot do that, he said, he will kill the dogs he has raised since he was 12.

"The last thing I want to do is starve a dog," he said.

Fort Yukon, about 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks, and other Yukon River communities have lived through other seasons of poor chum salmon returns in the last decade. Past shortages spurred donations.

Tamara Henry, natural resources director for Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in, the tribal government for Fort Yukon, appealed last week to Alaska legislators and news media for help.

Kevin Solomon told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner he could use the help. The couple of hundred fish he caught have disappeared. He lost his job in October and cannot afford commercial feed, he said.

In Fairbanks, a ton of the cheapest feed costs about $1,100. Higher-quality dog food is about $1,400 per ton. In Fort Yukon, those prices jump to about $2,500 per ton for food flown in from Fairbanks.

Solomon said he can make it through the winter with a ton of feed. His kennel has shrunk from 15 to 10 dogs. He sold two, gave two away and killed one when it tried to eat a pup.

He has mushed dogs for just seven years but hopes to keep the tradition of sled dogs alive in his community of 600.

"If we can continue with dog mushing, we can help keep our community together," he said. "After a long winter, people look forward to races in the spring."

Not all Fort Yukon dog teams are in trouble. Clifton Cadzow said he and his son, Josh, usually supplement their fall salmon catch with about a ton of commercial dry feed for their 20 dogs. This year, the Cadzows plan to buy two tons of commercial dry feed because of the fish shortage.

In Fort Yukon, summer salmon runs were a little below average but the fall chums fell far short of expectations, said Fred Bue, a commercial fish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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