Alaskan sled dogs dying for lack of fall salmon

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Several groups are mounting efforts to prevent the possible killing of scores of sled dogs in villages along the Yukon River.

Dog owners say they can’t feed their animals because their usual winter food supply of fall-run chum salmon didn’t arrive.

Ethel Christensen, director of the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has arranged to send a couple of truckloads of ground frozen salmon plus some granular dog food to Eagle, one of the Yukon River communities hurt by the collapse of the salmon run.

Christensen said the effort will cost around $5,000, which the organization is trying to recover through donations.

A musher from Eagle first alerted her to the problem, so she concentrated on getting dog food to that community near the Alaska-Canada border and to the surrounding area, which has about 180 people and about 200 sled dogs.

"In this case here, Eagle, they use (dogs) for their transportation," Christensen said. "Besides that, too, I kind of like animals."

There are approximately 40 other communities along the Yukon River and its drainages. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 dogs live in the region.

Salmon is a mainstay of the dog diet, particularly on the middle and upper river. But salmon returns were dismal this year around the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and Norton Sound. Mushers in several villages said they saw no option other than killing their dogs.

Lester Erhart, who owns a large dog yard at Tanana, said he put down 12 mostly young dogs a few days ago and feels terrible.

"It’s pretty damn rough," he said. "They were up and coming."

Erhart usually feeds his dogs a mixture of salmon and store-bought food. This year, though, he has even less money to buy dog food because his commercial fishing season was a bust. Erhart said he was living on Social Security.

A newspaper story generated dozens of phone calls and e-mail messages from people around the nation offering money or dog food.

One Anchorage woman told the newspaper she’d like to donate the moose meat in her freezer but didn’t know where to send it. A dog food distributor said he could give more than 3,000 pounds of high-quality dog food if he knew how to get it to the dogs in need.

A woman in Pennsylvania said she had written letters to dog food companies and to such celebrities as game-show host Bob Barker, but she, too, didn’t know where to tell them to direct the aid.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Fairbanks-based Native nonprofit agency serving interior Alaska, says it can get dog food to many of the people who need it.

Perry Ahsogeak, the organization’s director of community and natural resources, said the conference is in touch with dog owners around region through a program it runs providing rabies shots to dogs, and it works closely with leaders in the 42 communities that it serves.

Through its Operation Renew Hope, which is providing millions of dollars to help the people hurt by the salmon disaster, the state has given the Tanana Chiefs Conference $75,000 to transport frozen salmon and other items for human consumption.

Ahsogeak said he plans to add donated dog food to the deliveries.

Although his organization serves primarily Alaska Natives, the dog food will be made available to Natives and non-Natives alike, Ahsogeak said.

The Tanana Chiefs has opened a bank account for the dog relief effort. Checks can be mailed to Key Bank, P.O. Box 71230, Fairbanks, AK 99707. They should be made out to Tanana Chiefs Conference with a note saying the money is for the Fisheries Disaster Fund.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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