Yukon mushers struggle to feed dogs after poor salmon runs

hree black and grey dogs in orange harnesses lie in straw
Thomas Waerner’s sled dogs at the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday, March 15, 2020, during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Unalakleet is at race mile 714. (Ben Matheson/KNOM)

It takes about 4,000 salmon to feed all of the dogs in Pat Moore’s dog yard. He mixes it up a little with kibble and red meat, but mostly salmon fills his dogs’ bellies.

But the weak king and chum salmon runs this year compelled the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to halt subsistence fishing entirely in some parts of the Yukon River. That left many mushers, like Moore, without their main source of dog food.

Moore is one of perhaps nine mushers who live in the Yukon River village of Tanana — but he’s not sure how many of them can keep it up.

“After this is all over, it won’t be nine,” he said.

Moore has about 20 dogs in his yard. He was trying to sell most of them when the coronavirus pandemic shut down interstate travel in March.

“I’ve got no market in the Lower 48,” Moore said. “And nobody in Alaska wants to take a chance on them because they don’t know when the next race is going to be. So I’ve got plenty of race dogs.”

Gerald Alexander is a musher in Fort Yukon. He says he’s feeding his dogs mostly dry food, which is expensive to ship to Alaska bush communities off the road system.

“It costs so much for a bag of Friskies,” he said. “Actually 32 pounds for $60 dollars a bag.”

Alexander, who is a member of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, reached out to its director for help.

That director, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, says Yukon River communities rely on two types of salmon for their food: the kings and the chums. But communities have turned more to chum salmon over the years as king salmon runs have dwindled.

“Now the fall chum didn’t come in at all,” Davidson says. “And there’s been no fishing.”

Davidson says these are the lowest harvest numbers in a long time.

“You know, we have a situation where subsistence harvests are probably the lowest they’ve been in two decades.”

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Davidson pleaded for help for the mushers through Twitter earlier this month.

“I’ve been really surprised at the response that we’ve gotten, she said. “I don’t even know how many times now I’ve had professional identified mushers reach out to me and say, we want to help you, you know, we’ll put you in touch with the dog food companies that we use.”

But so far, only one dog food company is actively figuring out how to ship dog food to Yukon River mushers. Davidson hopes for more.

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Pat Moore says the dog food shortage could kill mushing altogether in Tanana.

“A lot of us are kind of long in the tooth. And this is gonna be the final nail in the coffin, I think.”

Moore says he has enough food to make it through December — three months away. But soon he and other mushers will have to make tough choices about the futures of their dogs.