June 9, 2006

Bird Flu Fear Doesn’t Deter Alaska’s Hunters

By Daisuke Wakabayashi

BARROW, Alaska -- At the Apugauti ceremony to celebrate the capture of a bowhead whale during the spring, the men and women of the Patkotak whaling crew serve the traditional nigliq soup made with harvested geese, rice, onions and flavored with curry powder.

The salty rich broth and mikigaq -- whale meat and blubber fermented in blood -- represent the traditional menu for the ceremony and are delicacies of the Inupiat Eskimo subsistence diet which relies heavily on water fowl and other animals found in the Arctic climate of Barrow, Alaska.

Migratory geese and ducks, staples of the Inupiat Eskimo diet, are also among the 33 priority birds targeted by the U.S. government for its avian flu surveillance program in Alaska, a crossroads for wild birds from Asia.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed 128 people in nine countries, according to the World Health Organization, but it has not been found in North America.

"It adds an extra layer of complexity," said Noah Owen-Ashley, a biologist for Alaska's North Slope borough department of wildlife. "One of our jobs is to educate the residents about bird flu, but not scare them."

Federal and local officials must walk a fine line in dealing with native Alaska community regarding bird flu. Officials do not want to cause panic and must reassure subsistence hunters that it is safe to eat wild birds.

At the same time, they want to instill enough concern about the virus to receive cooperation to test harvested birds and encourage the need for increased safety.

However, some Alaska Native residents of Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States and home to the world's largest Inupiat Eskimo community, did not express any concern.

"It's not really scary, because our people have hunted these birds since time immemorial and we know our own animals and we know if one is sick," said Thomas Olemaun, executive director of the Native Village of Barrow.

"It's our tradition. We can't stay home and not hunt them, because we grew up eating" the birds, he said, adding that he harvested about 40 geese for his family during the spring hunting season. "It's way better than chicken."


Wildlife biologists and health officials are taking to local airwaves, community newspapers and the Internet to encourage people to handle game safely.

In an hour-long program on local public radio and translated into the native Inupiaq language, a group of officials recommended people cook meat and eggs from wild birds thoroughly and properly wash their hands and equipment after handling dead birds.

Some safety precautions like wearing goggles and rubber gloves when out hunting is simply not realistic, said Charles Brower, director of wildlife at the Native Village of Barrow.

"It's very hard to carry when you're out hunting. It's the last thing people take with them," said Brower, who is also a hunter and harvested nearly 60 birds during the spring.

Subsistence hunting is also a financial necessity for many residents in the northern reaches of Alaska.

Since Barrow is 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle with no roads connecting it to other towns, food is very expensive in the city's few grocery stores. A gallon (3.8 liters) of milk can cost nearly $8.

"We eat what God has provided us for so many thousands of years and we're still living on it," said Brower.