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Purina donated 39,000 pounds of dog food to Yukon River mushers. It still might not be enough

A Purina donation of 39,000 pounds of dog food leaves Purina's Denver factory on its way to...
A Purina donation of 39,000 pounds of dog food leaves Purina's Denver factory on its way to Alaska.(Courtesy of Purina)
Published: Nov. 13, 2020 at 7:29 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Yukon River mushers were facing a pretty dark winter. This year’s fall chum salmon run was disastrous, meaning no one along the Yukon River was able to fish for chum that normally are the main food source for local dog teams.

Then there was a bright spot. Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, the director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, put a call out for donations and dog food to go towards feeding Yukon River dog teams. A GoFundMe for the teams raised over $30,200 and several dog food companies donated thousands of pounds of kibble to the mushers.

Purina donated 39,000 pounds of its True Instinct Formula With Real Beef & Salmon High Protein Dog Food to the cause, and funds from the GoFundMe have been used to pay for shipping the kibble to Yukon communities as well as purchasing additional food while mushers waited for the shipment.

“By my estimate, this will get some people through to about three months of winter and others just two months of winter, so if we are able to get more donations that would be great,” Quinn-Davidson said. “This is certainly an excellent start, and I think gives some of these mushers a sense of relief that... this buys them some time to fill in the rest of the gaps for the winter.”

Chum salmon is the main ingredient of dog food for Yukon River mushers. In the past, the large fall chum runs were able to provide several communities with enough salmon for people and dog teams. This year, Fish and Game recorded the lowest run on record for fall chum salmon. Management officials expected a run between 800,000 and 1.1 million fall chum salmon. Instead, they recorded less than 300,000.

Even with sizable donations, there is still concern mushers won’t have enough to feed their dogs throughout the winter. Most Yukon River dogs are working dogs. They consume up to a pound of kibble a day to sustain their fat reserves while living outside.

“The Alaska winter is many months and it will be a long time before people can put nets back in the water and catch some fish to feed their dogs again,” Quinn-Davidson said.

Gerald Alexander is a musher in Fort Yukon. He was tasked with distributing the Purina donation to Fort Yukon’s nine mushers. At the end of the summer, Alexander was worried about feeding his dogs after chum salmon fishing was shut down.

“It got to the point where we thought we might have to put our dogs down, but we rely on our dogs. We don’t want to do that,” Alexander said.

He said right now his dogs are in good shape, though he expects he will need to find another food source come spring. Alexander plans to trap lynx to boil and include with the kibble. Buying dog food instead isn’t really an option, Alexander said, as his 16-dog team goes through a $60 bag of kibble in a day.

“Up in Fort Yukon, you don’t have the income and you don’t have the work that everybody else does in other places,” Alexander said. “Here it’s seasonal. You just only work summertime. Come wintertime, you rely on the fish but there was no fish.”

Alexander’s owned dogs since he was 5 years old. It’s a way of life he’s passed on to his 9-year-old granddaughter. “These dogs are essential to our everyday life,” Alexander said. They will still run even when it’s too cold for a snow machine to operate.

Fort Yukon is one of several communities in need of dog food to make up for the depleted fall chum run. Quinn-Davidson said Tanana and the Yukon Territory’s Old Crow have also asked for aid.

While mushers are focused on getting through the winter, there is concern about what will happen next year if the chum salmon run is poor and fishing is shut down again.

“If the fishing is the same way, I don’t know what we’re going to do for dog feed,” Alexander said. “We’re going to have to figure out something. We’re going to figure out a new strategy.”

Past year’s poor chum runs have rebounded Jeff Estensen, Yukon Area fall season manager, said. There’s no indication next year’s run will be as bad.

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