In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis and the threat of food shortages, “sustainability” and “food security” are no longer just buzzwords to communities across Alaska. And some look to Old Harbor for answers.
Old Harbor is a community tucked away in the rugged wilderness on the southeast side of Kodiak Island. It started its journey towards sustainability with hoop houses to shelter crops from the elements. Then three years ago, the community barged in a herd of bison to Sitkalidik Island, across from the village.
About 200 people live in Old Harbor. And if Melissa Berns has her way, there will soon be more bison than people.
“We just let them free-range without any interruption,” said Berns, the bison herd manager for the Old Harbor Alliance, a non-profit which includes the tribe, the native corporation and the city.
As of April, the herd numbered about 63 bison, with 20 calves expected. Berns says the Alliance expects the herd to grow to about 400 animals. Right now, she says, the bison don’t require much management – except to move the animals to different grazing areas in the winter and the summer. Berns says it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to have 800 head of bison someday.
In March, when Alaska began to feel the effects of the pandemic, two bulls were harvested.
“From that, we were able to process the meat here in the community, and we’ve dispersed over 600 pounds of bison meat throughout the community,” Berns said. “I think we reached about 73 homes, and so that was huge.”
This summer, a team made up of a veterinarian and biologists will head out to the Sitkadilik Island to put radio collars on ten animals in the herd, both bulls and cows. They hope to use the information to learn more about the herd’s grazing patterns to develop better management strategies.
One of the big questions: how do the bison and bears get along? Apparently OK.
“We’ve watched the bears over there grazing on the spring green-up, right next there to the bison herd,” Berns said. “and they seem to have a mutual respect for one another right now.”
Berns says she hopes this continues, so there’s no predation.
If all goes well, the Old Harbor Alliance hopes to market the meat from surplus animals someday. If the herd grows to 400 bison, Berns says 30 of them could be culled from the herd – and at current market prices, that’s about $200,000 worth of meat.
The Alliance also hopes to sell permits to outside hunters, once the community’s needs are met.
The proceeds from the project would be used to help manage the herd and pay for more community programs.