Of all the wildlife native to North America, few animals are as physically impressive as a moose.
Although these majestic creatures range across almost all of Canada, their range in the Lower 48 is limited to parts of northern New England and upstate New York, the northern areas of the Rocky Mountains and across northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
And throughout much of Alaska, which is where this seasonal story of giving is centered — Petersburg, Alaska, to be exact.
Petersburg is a small town of less than 3,000 people, many of them descendants of the early Norwegian settlers, located about halfway between Ketchikan and the state capital of Juneau along the state’s southernmost stretch along the Pacific Coast. The town is situated on the northern end of Mitkof Island, which for centuries served as a summer fishing camp for the native Tlingit people.
Of course, fishing remains the centerpiece of St. Petersburg’s economy, with a commercial and gillnet fleet based in the area annually harvesting more than a million dollars’ worth of salmon, halibut, black cod and herring.
And nowadays, rather than native encampments, Mitkof Island serves as one of the stops along Alaska’s Inside Passage, where small cruise-ships, ocean-going ferries and private yachts drop anchor during the warmer months from May through September. It’s a trip that rewards tourists with spectacular views of mountains, glaciers and wildlife.
Rules of the Rack
In the Petersburg area, however, wildlife aren’t just for watching, or for tourists to capture videos on their smartphones. Each year, there is a four-week hunting season for moose that runs from mid-September into October, and that’s where this story picks up.
As KSFK Radio reported in an online story, volunteers are currently busy loading up hundreds of pounds of moose meat from this fall’s hunt at a community cold storage facility in Petersburg for distribution to residents, local service organizations and schools.
Where did the meat come from, you ask? From forfeited moose, which failed to conform to regulations limiting which animals can be hunted. According to Alaskan hunting rules, in order to be legal, a bull moose must have antlers “with a spread of 50 inches or more measured in a straight line perpendicular to the center line of the skull.”
There are other, more specific measurements regarding the “brow tine portion” of the antlers, which I don’t pretend to understand, but even for conscientious hunters, it can be difficult in the field to verify that a moose has the minimum 50-inch spread on its rack.
If not, the animal is forfeited, and the meat is ground up and packaged at a couple of the local seafood plants into two- and five-pound packs.
That can amount to quite a lot of ground meat.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a full-grown bull, which typically stands six feet tall at the shoulders, weighs from 1,200 to 1,600 lbs. and will dress out at about 950 lbs., yielding some 500 lbs. of meat. Each year, Alaskans and nonresidents harvest between 6,000 and 8,000 moose, which translates into about 3.5 million lbs. of edible meat.
In the Petersburg area, five moose shot during hunting season failed to meet the antler requirements and were confiscated by the state game officials. According to the KSFK story, as long as the court agrees, hunters who shoot an illegal moose can opt to pay the cost of processing the animal, instead of a fine.
Last year was the first year for an official moose meat distribution program involving the courts, public schools and local service agencies. The Salvation Army is handling distribution of about 800 lbs. of moose meat to some 10 different service organizations in Petersburg.
“I want to make sure the child centers, the manor, the hospital and other people that feed homeless people [get the meat],” Salvation Army major Loni Upshaw told the radio station. “I know it’s hard for the people who lost their moose but hopefully they can get a little bit of it some place down the line.”
The remainder of the more than 1,400 lbs. of ground moose will go to the local schools’ foodservice program, to be served up in moose tacos and other lunchtime entrées during the school year.
What a terrific program: Feeding hungry folks, nourishing children and providing food for needy families in a community where the local vegetarian options are about nil.
I know the haters would condemn hunting and meat-eating alike, but I’d sure like to know what they’d propose as a replacement for people who need food to make it through six months of winter weather.
Soybeans and salad stuff doesn’t grow too well up in that part of the world.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.