Hoonah residents will be eating a lot more fish this winter since last year's heavy snowfall decimated the local deer population.
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Many residents in the small town rely on the usually plentiful deer for sustenance in the winter. But when snows melted this past spring, it quickly became clear the deer population had dwindled during the previous winter that brought nearly 300 inches of snow.
Ben Botts said he knew the population had been hard-hit when he saw piles of bones and tufts of deer fur in bear scat.
"You could see signs of total wipeout of deer because their food source had been covered up (by snow)," he said.
The survivors stayed higher in the mountains and as a result, hunters who in past years shot from roads or on the beach couldn't bag anything when hunting season opened in September.
Always a big hiker, Botts didn't change tactics this season - except he spent a whole lot more time in the woods.
Some residents who usually serve up venison sausage links, hamburger and jerky during the cold winter months anticipated a poor season for deer hunting, so they canned and dried fish in preparation.
Hoonah Mayor Dennis Gray chose not to hunt for deer, and instead caught halibut and plans to hunt for seal this winter.
The situation is worrisome, since many people in the town with a winter population of about 650 feed their families by subsistence, an economic lifestyle characterized by living off the land.
"People definitely utilize deer for meals; it's a good part of their protein in the winter," Gray said.
An estimated 70 percent of Hoonah locals hunt and gather food, said Johanna Dybdahl, tribal administrator for the Hoonah Indian Association.
She guessed families would have good supplies of fish on hand, but also expected an increase in applications for food stamps once fish stores begin to run out. More likely, she said, people would share with those who are without.
Last fall, residents called on state and federal agencies to close parts of the hunting season so the population could revive. Agencies responded by shutting down doe season shortly after staff from the Department of Wildlife Conservation visited.
The department spent a week covering more than 300 miles to study the deer population in Unit 4, which includes Admiralty, Chichagof and Baranof islands. Aerial, boat and ground surveys, plus a town meeting to discuss what hunters were seeing, proved action needed to be taken.
The state season was closed for female deer in November to protect reproductive potential, said Phil Mooney, a Sitka-based biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. Federal agencies quickly followed suit.
The regular hunting season closes today, but a one-month subsistence hunt starts Tuesday. Last week, the Federal Subsistence Board announced it would be closed to doe hunting. Bucks can still be taken, but locals say it's difficult to find any deer in the area.
And that's why most residents support the closures, Dybdahl said. "They want a healthy deer population for the future."
Some locals wanted the regular season closed to nonresidents - the islands in Unit 4 are popular with Juneau deer hunters - but state and federal agencies chose not to take that action.
Hoonah resident Keith Skaflestad said he wished the agencies had contemplated closures more thoroughly. Being able to take one doe per license would have made a difference for his seven-member family.
Skaflestad usually goes into the winter with up to 15 deer, and venison is served on the family table three to four times a week.
This year, he has only one deer. As Skaflestad digs deeper into the freezer, the family will eat more bear since he has more of it than deer. He also bagged two mountain goats, smoked a dozen sockeye, and will defrost some moose. He won't buy beef at the local grocer because, besides not being able to afford it, he doesn't think it's healthy to eat.
Residents recognize the deer population is not likely to recover in one season, and another year of heavy snows could further damage herds.
"We're jockeying and making educated guesses and talking to people and trying to guess right," Mooney said about the management. "If we get another March like last year, all bets are off."
The subsistence season is open to residents on the three islands and people who live in the Southeast Alaska rural communities of Kake, Gustavus, Haines, Petersburg, Point Baker, Klukwan, Port Protection, Wrangell and Yakutat.
The season runs through January.
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