The Alaska Board of Game this week reaffirmed a contentious ban on spotting Dall sheep from aircraft that it approved in March.
At a special meeting held by teleconference on Thursday afternoon, the board voted to establish a subcommittee to work with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to "discuss and evaluate a variety of issues and options to address Dall sheep concerns," according to a meeting summary.
Board members on the committee will be Nate Turner, David Brown and Stosh Hoffman, with Teresa Sager Albaugh serving as alternate.
Sager Albaugh, a Tok construction consultant, was the only no vote when the board approved the original ban at its March meeting in Anchorage. She and retired Palmer Cooperative Extension Service professor Pete Probasco were the only votes in favor of rescinding the ban on Thursday.
At a town hall meeting with the board earlier this year, Mike Meekin, owner of Meekin's Air Service in Sutton, emphasized the importance of giving state biologists the chance to figure out what's causing sheep populations to decline.
"It seems to me this is about sheep, not so much allocation. We just don't have the sheep," Meekin said. "I've been in valleys (where) 40 years ago, guys, there was 100 ewes and lambs. Now there's nothing."
Rough Fish and Game estimates show the Dall sheep population dropped from almost 57,000 in 1990 to about 45,000 in 2010. Biologists blame declines in part on warmer weather dumping wet snow on coastal mountains, covering forage, setting up the potential for icing or avalanches and forcing sheep to struggle for food on normally windblown mountain ridges. Many hunters say predation is a problem.
Of about 90 comments received before this week's special meeting, about 20 favored the ban and most of the rest opposed it, Probasco said before the vote.
The purpose of the meeting was to rescind the ban and the board was expected to do that, Probasco said during discussion Thursday: "In my mind, I think we're obligated to rescind and move it forward."
Board decisions can't always be based on public opinion, countered Turner, the board's vice chairman and owner of a Nenana family hunting business.
"The board had a lot of comments in opposition," he said. "But something that's tempered my view on that a little bit -- the disproportionate comments against the proposal -- is that I believe any time someone is losing something through board actions, you're going to hear mostly from the affected group."
The board-generated ban came in reaction to complaints of fewer sheep and overcrowding at popular hunt spots, including those in the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range.
Several board members on Thursday called the ban one of the most contentious issues they've addressed, likening it to hotly debated past decisions on Denali wolf hunting bans or McNeil River bears.
Far more opposition than support was voiced at March meetings in Anchorage and a February meeting in Wasilla. Hunters and pilots accused the board of overreaching. Resident hunters blamed the sheep decline on an increasing number of professional guides rather than Alaskans with planes, according to a 2014 survey. Some critics of the ban said it will be nearly impossible to enforce: When does an extra pass before landing at a hunting camp turn into a sheep-spotting run?
The ban, made over the objections of the Anchorage Advisory Committee, which conveys the views of local citizens to the board, was cited as a factor in the resignation of a third of that committee's members in April.
Critics say the committee created this week is a far cry from the larger working group that a coalition of influential Alaska hunting organizations urged the state to create last month.
The largest issue surrounding sheep hunting in many parts of Alaska is an "unlimited" number of big game guides, said Mark Richards, co-chair of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Nonresidents are required to hire a guide if they hunt sheep.
But in an email, Richards said the new subcommittee includes two big-game guides, Turner and Hoffman. He said he respects both men but having two licensed big-game guides on a three-member sheep subcommittee constitutes a conflict of interest, whether or not they guide for sheep.
"This is not at all the 'working group' our organization supported," Richards wrote.
In a mid-April letter, the groups urged Fish and Game to create a sheep working group, using a facilitator and state staff for much-needed biological information. The Legislative Outdoor Heritage Caucus Advisory Council includes the Alaska and Kenai chapters of Safari Club International, the Alaska Professional Hunters Association, Backcountry Hunters and the Anglers and Alaska Bowhunters Association.
The groups called for "meaningful participation by many groups" -- not just game board members but other entities, including federal land managers, Alaska Native corporations, a non-hunting conservation group and "a sheep expert not employed by the state or federal government."
An updated Alaska Dall sheep management plan is long overdue, the letter said.
The head of the bowhunters' group, hunter and pilot Dr. Jack Frost of Anchorage, said Friday that he was disappointed with the board's decision not to rescind the ban.
"We would definitely like to see some better solutions than what the Board of Game has proposed," he said. "The Board of Game, I feel, has been punitive or vindictive or something with this regulation. It's a regulation they know they can't enforce and yet it's going to be a huge nuisance to Alaska sheep hunters."
In separate actions during Thursday's teleconference, the board denied six requests for future agenda changes, including items on non-subsistence and sport hunting limits for Noatak caribou, reduced black bear limits in a Homer-area game subunit, and a trapping ban in areas around Skagway and Haines.
The board agreed to schedule a future teleconference meeting in late July or early August to address agenda change requests and get an update on Dall sheep.