By Lynn Burkhead
In recent days, there’s been a bit of skirmish developing as state governors and government agencies wrestle with whether or not outdoor recreation is legally allowed in their states during the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping across the world.
Some states like Texas, Oklahoma, and New York have argued that outdoor recreation is a safe and essential activity that can give constituents a safe respite from the endless barrage of bad news and shelter in place regulations occurring in many part of the country.
Because of that, some have allowed outdoor recreational pursuits like spring fishing and spring turkey hunting to continue, for now at least.
Others have argued that there’s too many people gathering and many not adhering to social distancing guidelines in place, therefore creating unsafe conditions.
As that seesaw legal and moral battle continues, and will undoubtedly do so for several more weeks into the future, spring bear hunting seasons in Alaska and Washington are now the latest casualties on COVID-19’s closure lists.
First, the state of Washington announced on March 31, 2020 the closure of spring bear hunting in some places across its state.
“Six game management units that were scheduled to open on April 1 for spring bear hunting will now be closed pending further evaluation,” said a statement on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Nearly 90 percent of spring bear permit holders in northeast Washington would be traveling from outside the area.”
Washington also announced the cancellation of its youth spring turkey hunt as well: “The youth turkey hunt scheduled for April 4-5 is canceled,” stated the WDFW website.
“Youth who were planning to hunt on April 4 or 5 may still use their tags in the regular spring or fall turkey seasons, pending further impacts,” the agency added. “The spring turkey season is scheduled to run April 15 through May 31.”
Given recent trends, it would seem doubtful that Washington’s regular spring turkey season will go uninterrupted, although only time will tell.
Late on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, the state of Alaska made one of the biggest announcements thus far in the pandemic crisis, pulling the plug on spring seasons as it announced the closure of bear hunts statewide.
While some hunters initially wondered if the announcement that quickly began lighting up hunting forums belonged in the fake news or April Fools' Day categories, it soon became apparent that the spring bear hunting news was indeed real.
“For the safety of Alaska’s communities, and especially individuals most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang has directed the Division of Wildlife Conservation to close all black and brown bear hunts statewide for both resident and nonresident hunters, effective now through May 31,” said a news release. “This decision will be reevaluated as necessary. All subsistence bear hunts will remain open as a way for residents to have an opportunity to fill freezers and provide for families.”
For what it’s worth, that reevaluation took less than 24 hours as it turned out.
On April 2, 2020, the agency issued an updated news release that seemed to say not so fast as the state reversed a portion of its decision from the previous day.
Do note that a careful reading of the information contained in the ADF&G news release concerning spring bear hunts seems to indicate that even this most recent decision is subject to change — and possibly soon.
“Yesterday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed non-resident and resident general hunting for brown and black bear through May 31,” stated ADF&G commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in an agency news release. “This was done to reduce non-critical travel in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus across Alaska."
“Upon further consideration, the Department has decided to rescind the resident portion of this closure. The non-resident hunts remain closed. To protect public health, resident hunters participating in spring bear hunts in Alaska are required to abide by all issued health mandates, including social distancing mandates and intrastate travel mandates. Specific to intrastate travel mandates, all instate travel between communities is prohibited unless travel is necessary to support critical infrastructure, or for critical personal needs.”
That last statement is where things get a bit tricky since Vincent-Lang goes on to describe that hunting in Alaska doesn’t seem to meet the state government’s critical needs mandate that is necessary for travel right now from one community to another.
“General hunting has not been identified as a critical personal need,” Vincent-Lang’s letter continued. “As such, all hunting activities, other than subsistence, must conform with the intrastate travel health mandate. ADF&G will be issuing additional details in the coming days regarding conduct of these hunts in context of the issued mandates. Protection of public health is critical at this time. Abide by the issued health mandates. It is our hope to flatten the curve by keeping people hunkered down, and not traveling for non-critical reasons.”
In other words, right now, Alaska residents are allowed to bear hunt this spring. But as clarification continues to come from the ADF&G in these difficult times of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, that is apparently subject to change.
Truth be told, unless the virus peaks by sometime this summer, it’s entirely possible that even more see-saw changes are looming in Alaska and other parts of North America. Fishing trips and spring hunting seasons are affected for now, but in a few more weeks, it could be possible that fall hunting seasons are in jeopardy.
While the idea of fall hunts being scrubbed might seem far-fetched to some given that those seasons are mere blips on a distant horizon at the present time, the postponement and cancellation of big summertime events such as the Olympic Games and Wimbledon can’t be trends that give outdoorsmen much comfort right now.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, stay tuned to this space for updates on the COVID-19 crisis and its ongoing impact on outdoors recreation across the nation.