Too few chum may force mushers to kill sled dogs

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Mushers may decide to kill hundreds of good Alaska sled dogs this winter because there aren't enough salmon to feed them.

Mushers in Eagle and other villages along the Yukon River say they would rather kill the dogs then watch them starve.

Subsistence salmon fishing was shut down along the entire Yukon for the first time ever this year when the salmon runs collapsed, prompting the governor to declare a disaster.

Chum salmon provide the basic diet for dog teams along the Yukon basin. It takes at least 100 chum salmon a year to feed a dog.

''I know Dick Cook shot his dogs and there are a few other people in town that are talking about it now,'' said Eagle resident Andy Bassich, who has a kennel of 14 dogs he uses for hauling water, firewood and winter tourists. He said he's considering getting rid of some of his dogs.

Cook, who lives 25 miles downriver from Eagle, has no phone and could not be reached for comment. Bassich said Cook shot the dogs after he was cited for illegal fishing for trying to catch fish for his dogs.

It is not illegal to shoot dogs in Alaska as long as it is done quickly and humanely, said Sgt. Rae Arno with the Alaska State Troopers.

Bassich and others said they haven't been able to catch a single fish all summer. He tried to organize an emergency shipment of hatchery silver salmon from Valdez, but the delivery fell through this week. Hatchery director Jason Wells said the silvers quit running and he had a contract to keep with someone else, so he couldn't send the fish to Eagle as planned.

For Eagle mushers, the hatchery fish seemed like their last hope.

''I think anyone who has a dog that's marginal or a dog that's over nine years of age, they're going to go down,'' said Don Woodruff, a musher and trapper who lives downriver from Eagle.

Woodruff said he'll be shooting a lot more beaver, squirrels and grouse to try to keep his dogs fed.

Feeding subsistence-caught chum salmon to dogs is the traditional canine diet up and down the Yukon River. While a small portion of the fall chum harvest in Eagle is used for human food, most of the fish is consumed by dogs, according to a recent study by the Department of Fish and Game.

Village mushers further down the Yukon from Eagle are feeling the same sense of desperation. Lester Erhart, a Tanana musher with a reputation for producing top-notch sled dogs, said he plans to kill more than half of his yard, which totals 31 dogs plus pups.

''I have to get up enough guts to do it,'' Erhart said.

For many Bush residents, dog teams equate to winter survival. Besides their ability to haul water and firewood, dogs are used to check traplines and provide transportation.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, the social-services and tribal agency representing Interior villages, is asking dog food companies to donate food as some did during the 1998 salmon disaster. So far, only Iams has responded with a donation of 120 pounds of food, said Perry Ahsogeak, director of community and natural resources for Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Julie Roberts, director of the Tanana Tribal Council, said every musher she has talked to plans to kill a large portion of their dogs. Years and years of good bloodlines will be lost, and if the fish don't recover, no one will be able to afford to keep them, she said.

''It's no longer going to be a part of village life,'' she said.

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