A shortage of shotgun shells makes it difficult for YK Delta hunters to harvest migratory birds



Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

A nationwide shortage of shotgun shells is complicating matters for migratory bird hunters in southwest Alaska, who are eager to get outdoors after a long winter. The arrival of geese, ducks and swans in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta is a sure sign of spring.

It’s also a big relief for people who’ve been eating out of their freezers all winter, as these birds are the source of the first fresh meat in months.

“I make soup, I roast it, I cook it. It depends on how I want to prepare it,” said Ronnie Turner of Holy Cross.

Turner is using leftover shells from last year, but he hasn’t been able to buy any from the store for months.

“People who travel to different villages will get shells if there are any in stock,” he said. “The only place I know of in our area here was Grayling, and they were limited to hunters for one box per hunter.”

It’s not just hard to get seashells in rural Alaska. Outfitters in Anchorage are also struggling to stock them. There were a few different types of seashells in stock at Cabela’s in Anchorage earlier this month, but management said it’s difficult to keep the seashells for long. Maybe about three days, or a week at the most. A crate of seashells can cost anywhere from $200 to $300, which doesn’t include up to $100 more in shipping. Cabela’s does not fulfill bush orders.

In Kwethluk, Caleb Uttereyuk goes to the local store, where he buys two boxes a day.

“Right now I’m stockpiling boxes of shells,” he said. “Because right after those geese we have other birds coming in, like black ducks. We usually call them white-winged scooters.

In Bethel, Sam Berlin has already gone hunting this spring, but he’s saving his last four boxes of shells until later in the year when the birds are bigger. But he might not even need to use his shells. Instead, he could come out with a net for young birds that can’t fly yet.

“It’s totally different from filming and all that,” Berlin said. “And there are unique ways to approach [the species] of ducks. When you’re going to corner them and then expand your net, there are certain ways to do it. And that is not easy.

Using a net is legal, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has special regulations during the subsistence harvest season. Berlin hunts for a large extended family, and the traditional method using nets he learned from his father could have added value this year as ammunition shortages persist.

“I’m not really, really worried about it because this kind of subsistence harvest is still available if you know how to do it,” Berlin said.

One thing that worries the US Fish and Wildlife is the use of toxic lead shot, which has been illegal for hunting migratory birds in the United States since 1991. Since then, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been trading lead shells for steel. Hunters can exchange lead shot for steel for free at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

The shortage of shotgun shells is not unique to Alaska. Between January 2020 and April 1 of this year, more than 5 million Americans purchased firearms for the first time, and many people chose to stockpile ammunition. Ammunition has been hard to come by since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

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