For me, the COVID-19 nightmare started the day after I left for SHOT Show in January. That day, January 21st, the first confirmed case of Coronavirus hit the Seattle area where I grew up and reside with my family. It was a bit of a ho-hum moment at first, not realizing just how deadly or contagious this disease actually was or what it would mean for our nation and the world. I don’t need to expand on the latter, as by now you’re all well versed on COVID-19 the Coronavirus, and what it’s done to our planet.
Hunters across the country should be aware, however, that the COVID-19 nightmare that’s sweeping the world will probably also impact their hunting plans this spring. A quick round up of calls and website checks to states throughout the west and Alaska highlighted a myriad of changes, land closures, travel bans, and outright season closures in one case. Hunters need to be aware that these ever-changing guidelines set to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay are fluid and can change within a matter of hours, not days.
For starters, let’s look at Washington State where I reside with my family. Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 to remote communities from the larger cities have caused the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to cancel the youth turkey hunt this weekend and early spring bear hunts that were set to kick off tomorrow, April 1st, have been postponed. Fishing in my home state, also cancelled. National Forest Lands, Department of Natural Resources lands, State Parks, boat launches, County Parks, all trailheads, primitive trails, and any semblance of outdoor activity here in Washington has been cancelled or postponed. It’s a veritable nightmare for outdoorsman in Washington state right now.
In Oregon the situation isn’t as dire but there are still some severe COVID-19 impacts that should be taken into consideration if you plan to hunt turkey or bear this spring. Hunting seasons haven’t been cancelled in Oregon but all National Forest lands in Oregon are closed. That’s closed with a capital “C”! Most, if not all, overnight camping areas and recreation facilities are closed, as well, and hunter education classes have been moved to online-only courses. The moral to the story is this. If you plan on pulling off your hunt this spring you’d better check the website of every government agency involved with your hunt before you go. And then check it again, and again.
The tag sale deadline for spring bear in Oregon has been extended until May 1st so hunters can decide whether they want to delay their hunts, or not. If hunters can’t hunt due to COVID-19 the State of Oregon is offering a refund and reinstatement of their preference points.
In both Idaho and Montana spring hunts are still planned as scheduled. Camping facilities and restrooms, however, will most likely be closed as most state and federal camping and recreational facilities have been limited to day-use only. It warrants a check with the regional Forest Service, BLM, or state lands office before you go to ensure that the public lands you intend to hunt are indeed open.
On March 31, Nebraska shut down license sales for non-resident turkey hunters, citing an executive order by Governor Pete Ricketts to discourage unnecessary travel. Nonresident hunters who had planned ahead and already purchased permits will be able to use them, or may be to turn them in before the turkey opener for a refund.
I’ve been watching the travel ban in Alaska carefully since it was announced by Governor Dunleavy on March 25th. Alaska’s travel ban will be reevaluated on April 21st and I wouldn’t hold my breath that it will be lifted immediately. The ban requires any and all visitors to the state to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Like many rural locations in America the small towns and villages in Alaska simply can’t risk a COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, many of the remote villages in northern Alaska have issued their own travel bans. Only essential travel, mail, and supplies are being allowed into these villages at this time.
Alaska spring black bear and grizzly bear hunts land smack dab in the middle of this ban, and on April 1, the state closed all black and brown bear hunts statewide for both residents and non-resident hunters. Subsistence bear hunts will remain open as a way for residents to have an opportunity to fill freezers and provide for families. Little more than 24 hours later, under immense pressure from locals, Governor Mike Dunleavy reversed the Alaska Department of Fish Game’s decision, reopening spring bear season for residents of the state.
With spring bear hunts closed in Alaska, what about moose, caribou, mountain goat, and Sitka blacktail hunts scheduled for the fall? If you’ve booked a hunt with an outfitter or guide in Alaska, or anywhere for that matter, you’d better check their cancellation policy. I have a caribou hunt booked in Alaska in September with some friends and I’ll be on the phone with our outfitter to see if we can shift this hunt to 2021 if regulations don’t allow it to occur in 2020. DIY hunts in Alaska sometimes require multiple flights and hotel stays. Get on the phone now to get a handle on cancellation policies and ask them, first and foremost, if your deposit can be used at a later date if you can’t get an outright, full refund.
Lastly, the fear factor surrounding this pandemic has caused gun and ammunition sales to soar to all new heights. AMMO.com recently reported a 1,000 percent increase in ammunition sales month-over-month from January to February and the March numbers will likely be higher. Our local gun shops have quit stocking the shelves and are simply placing pallets of ammo on the floor. The madness started with 9 mm and 223 ammunition and has worked its way through just about every caliber. Be thoughtful of this as you prepare for your spring bear hunt, turkey hunt, or perhaps even gearing up to sight-in your rifles this summer.
Here’s a COVID-19 pre-hunt checklist that might be helpful:
-Is hunting open in the state I wish to hunt?
-Are the lands open that I plan to hunt?
-With hotels and campgrounds closed what are the lodging options?
-Are non-resident hunts still planned for the state you wish to hunt?
-Are there any travel advisories in effect that will impact the hunt?
-Will social distancing guidelines effect the group size of the hunting party?
-Are there any refund or re-issuance policies in effect for special tags?
-Is ammunition available?
The sound of a turkey gobbling, a pheasant cackling as it flushes from cover, mallards chattering overhead on their final approach into the decoys, or an elk screaming on a far ridge. We live for these moments outdoors. We have a tendency to take these experiences for granted until they are taken away from us. Please follow social distancing guidelines this spring, do your homework before you go hunting, be safe, and enjoy the outdoors like never before.