The spring brown bear hunt is set to open in Kodiak today, but with travel restrictions and social distancing mandates in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hunters and guides alike are facing a season of losses. Tags will go unused, and millions of dollars will be withheld from the local economy as out-of-state hunters stay home.
Sam Rohrer, a hunting guide in Kodiak, said the impact of the hunting season losses on the community will be “huge.”
“This entire spring season will be a loss for me,” said Rohrer, who guides primarily out-of-state hunters who fly to Kodiak especially for the brown bear hunt. He will cancel 100% of hunters who booked services through his business. “Between the travel restrictions, quarantine restrictions and social distancing, functionally there’s no way to operate guide business and take hunters out.”
The hunting season has not been formally altered, but the Board of Game’s seven members are expected to convene next week to make a decision on a possible cancellation of the entire season or parts of it. Even if the season isn’t formally canceled, it is impossible for off-island hunters to travel to Kodiak without violating the governor’s mandates.
“Even if they don’t close the season, the governor’s mandates effectively shut it down,” Rohrer said. “Hunting is not listed as an essential service. Nonessential businesses are supposed to be shut down and there is a 14-day quarantine. Those items make it impossible for us.”
The spring brown bear hunting season represents two-thirds of Rohrer’s business profits, he said, adding that he sees no option to recoup his losses.
Rohrer said that despite his worry about the financial losses, he would not want to guide out-of-state hunters, due to the risk it could pose to the Kodiak community and remote villages on Kodiak Island. Kodiak remains free of confirmed cases of COVID-19, and with Kodiak’s limited health care infrastructure, a spike in cases could strain the system.
“Two-thirds of my income are gone, but if that is the cost of protecting our community, then we are willing to take the hit. It’s worth it,” Rohrer said. “Frankly, because of my concern about my local community, even if those mandates were recommendations, from a functional concern, this is my community and I don’t want to risk bringing a bunch of nonresident hunters here. Most of the guides I’ve talked to feel the same way.”
Rohrer estimated that the community of Kodiak would lose between $2.6 million and $3 million due to the reduced or canceled hunting season.
“That’s money that would be paid on air taxis, guides, equipment, groceries and supplies,” he said. “Most of that money comes into our economy and is recirculated a few times.”
Larry Van Daele, a retired Kodiak bear biologist who serves on the Board of Game, said the board’s main concern is to limit the spread of COVID-19 to remote parts of the state, but the economic impact on communities is figuring into the board’s decision.
“It just ripples to all of us,” Van Daele said. “When all of those local businesses get less income, they have less to share with the basketball team or the schools.”
But even if the hunting season remains open, the influx of funds coming from spendy out-of-state hunters will be lost. According to Van Daele, hunters can spend between $10,000 and $30,000 on guiding services for a bear hunt, a sum that also goes toward covering groceries, equipment at hunting stores, hunting lodges and other service providers.
Statewide, Rohrer estimated Alaska would lose around $20 million in spring hunting-related revenue due to the travel restrictions. If the restrictions carry on through the summer sport fishing season and the fall hunting seasons, those losses could be compounded.
“The hope would be that everything is good to go by fall, although there are certainly people out there who are saying it won’t be,” he said. “We’re all crossing our fingers, anticipating things will be normal by then.”
Rohrer said the losses will be felt most by small and new companies. For them, the loss of an entire season’s revenue could have a crippling effect, particularly if they don’t have another form of income.
“I think of anyone who just bought an expensive charter boat and had to buy halibut permits, and potentially, they are going to have a greatly reduced season. Hopefully, businesses that have been around awhile will be able to weather this storm. Growing up in a small town, you learn to adapt,” said Rohrer, who is a lifetime Kodiak resident.
Rohrer also regularly leads hiking and fishing trips in Kodiak during the summer. His trips typically begin in July, but some outfitters on the island start in June. They are already seeing many cancellations, but it’s unclear how bad the damage to Kodiak’s summer season will be, Rohrer said.
Some tourism providers have already reported a decline in summer bookings, according to Discover Kodiak Director Aimee Williams. Many expect to see a 50% decrease in revenue in 2020 compared to 2019.
“I feel that the bigger unknown is just when traveler sentiment will rise to a point of feeling safe to travel,” Williams said.
While many hunters voluntarily canceled their plans to travel to Kodiak, others have expressed that they may fly in the face of the restrictions. For some, the Kodiak brown bear hunt is the hunt of a lifetime. The Island of Kodiak is divided into 29 hunting regions, each with a separate permit drawing process. In some particularly coveted regions, the chances of drawing a permit are less that one in 100, Rohrer said.
“We have people that have flat-out said they are coming to Kodiak. They don’t care about the travel restrictions,” said Nate Svoboda, an area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Rohrer said many guides have requested the Board of Game consider deferring hunting tags to next year, so that those who were supposed to hunt this spring could instead hunt in the spring of 2021.
Van Daele said the board is considering closing the season for all hunters, or only for nonresident hunters. But among 215 Alaskan hunters who put in for a permit this year, only 21 are from Kodiak, meaning that if the season remains open, some Alaskans could travel from different parts of the state to Kodiak, going against the governor’s mandate, which prohibits non-essential travel within the state of Alaska. There are around 80 out-of-state permit holders for the current season.
“The practical aspect is they would have to quarantine for 14 days before they went anywhere,” Van Daele said, adding that even if hunters made it to Kodiak, many remote communities on the island have restricted access to residents only, making travel to different hunting regions difficult or impossible.
However, he said that for hunters who live in Kodiak, the hunt remains feasible even within the travel restrictions. They could take a skiff to their hunting area, avoiding flights into remote communities. While out-of-state hunters are required to be accompanied by a guide, the requirement doesn’t apply to Alaskan hunters, meaning that Kodiak residents could complete a bear hunt without violating the social distancing mandate.
According to Svoboda, the typical number of bears harvested each spring hovers around 100, but even if the hunt remains open, the harvest this year will be significantly lower.
Van Daele said that in the big scheme, the lack of bear hunting this spring will not impact the Kodiak ecosystem. Since most of the bears harvested in the spring are males, that might hurt cub production, he said.
“You may have lower productivity, but eventually it would balance itself out,” Van Daele said.
Mature boars, the target of the hunt, are known to prey on bear cubs, so the cub survival rate this summer may be lower than typical.
“In theory, if you kill more big boars, you can have higher cub survival rates. So in theory, that could hurt the population,” Rohrer said. But “for one year, it’s not going to have that big of a difference.”
When asked about enforcement mechanisms, the Kodiak Police Department, the Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Fish and Game did not provide any information on specific measures in place to enforce the travel restrictions, and particularly the intrastate travel limitations.
Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts was adamant about prohibiting hunting-related travel to Kodiak, but was equally unsure about how to enforce the mandates. Enforcement would be up to the Kodiak Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers, he said.
Roberts expressed support for canceling the hunting season, despite the economic toll it would take on the community.
“If we’re going to cancel everything else, that should have been canceled,” he said, adding that he is unsure why the Board of Game is meeting to make a decision about the hunting season after it has formally started. “Canceling it a week after it starts is a weird way to go about it.”
Kodiak Police Department Public Information Officer Francis de la Fuente said the police force is not large enough to deal with enforcement of mandates. He recommended that if Kodiak residents become aware of any potential violators, they should report the incident to email@example.com. But when asked who would conduct the investigations once violations are reported, de la Fuente could not provide any details.
“The whole system now is busy. This is uncharted territory. There are so many things that are ongoing,” de la Fuente said, adding that despite the lack of action, the Kodiak Emergency Service Council is “concerned” about potential travel ban violations.
“We empathize with everyone to keep Kodiak as safe as possible, but there are limitations to what the Emergency Services Director can do,” de la Fuente said. “What some people are asking for is close to martial law. We’re hoping we never get to that, because we trust that everyone wants to keep Kodiak safe.”
The Kodiak ADF&G office has fielded “dozens and dozens” of calls about the fate of the spring bear hunting season, Svoboda said. Many off-island hunters are wondering what will happen to their permits and how they can get to the island and still abide by the quarantine stipulations.
The number one question is: “Are the permits lost?” But Svoboda doesn’t have the answer. Only the Board of Game and ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang can make that call.
But Svoboda has been telling hunters that if they are not from Kodiak, they should not come to the island. Like other community members, Svoboda is worried about the lack of enforcement of the travel restrictions.
“There is a mandate by the governor to restrict intrastate travel, but who’s policing that? What’s preventing someone from flying over from Anchorage, other than their conscience?” Svoboda said. “It’s really important that people remember that there are travel restrictions implemented by the governor.”
ADF&G Director Eddie Grasser said the department will not be involved in enforcing the governor’s regulations.
“We’re not an enforcing agency. What people decide to do on their own time is not something we have any jurisdiction over,” Grasser said. “This is a very fluid situation. We’re not sure what the outcome is going to be. There seems to be a new mandate every day.”
Svoboda said the Kodiak office of ADF&G has implemented numerous protocols to keep staff protected.
“We are discouraging people coming into the Fish and Game office. We are encouraging people to get fishing and hunting permits online. Before coming into the office, call the office to see if the needs can be facilitated through some other means,” Svoboda said. “Our proxy fishing permit can be done over the phone and sent to people’s homes. There are different mechanisms put in place to account for some of this stuff, and we encourage some of the community members to follow those recommendations.”
The department is not selling licenses or locking tags, required for a bear hunt, in their Kodiak office. Instead, they can be ordered online or purchased at one the local outfitters. Big Ray’s, Kodiak hunting gear mainstay, remains open, though staff are taking precautions to ensure social distancing when possible.
Hunters needing to pick up their permits are required to call the department office ahead of time and make an appointment to pick up their permit. When they call, they will have to provide their hunting license number, locking tag number, driver’s license number and the dates for their 15-day consecutive hunt period. Hunters who do not call ahead to schedule an appointment will be turned away without service, Svoboda said.
Successful hunters will also have to make an appointment to have their bear sealed, a required step once a hunt is complete. The number to schedule an appointment is 907-486-1880.
“This whole thing has changed the way we do our day to day business,” Svoboda said.