WASILLA -- Most of the 170 people packed in a downstairs banquet room at the Best Western on Lake Lucille Friday night agreed Alaska Dall sheep are in crisis.
But the crowd of hunters and guides at the town hall meeting convened by Alaska's Board of Game found little consensus on how to fix problems with one of the state's most prized big-game animals.
And now a battle is brewing as Alaskans and non-resident hunters, along with the guides who cater to them, grapple with fewer chances to hunt and sometimes crowded hunting areas.
The seven-member state Board of Game will weigh numerous sheep proposals at a Wasilla meeting that runs through Thursday with another session to follow next month in Anchorage.
Not everyone in the sea of Carhartts, camouflage and ball caps Friday night bought fully into the allocation argument pitting users against each other.
Mike Meekin, owner of long-established Meekin's Air Service in Sutton, gave a nod to the hunters in the crowd he's flown and to the importance of giving state biologists the chance to figure out what's causing the sheep declines.
"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 Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates on Dall sheep 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 also say predation is a problem.
The board will consider proposals that include limiting non-Alaskan hunts, restricting airplane access, reducing bag limits for everyone and limiting hunters to one hunt area.
A separate board proposal to limit guides through concessions -- a form of limited entry -- is "sitting on a shelf" at the Legislature, officials told the crowd.
A few hunters stood up at Friday's town hall session and said they'd lay off annual hunts if it helped the agile white animals dotting the slopes of fabled mountain ranges -- the Alaska, the Brooks, the Chugach, the Talkeetnas and the Wrangells.
Others said keeping annual hunts for residents is crucial.
Jim Stocker was one of 40 people to walk up to the microphone or weigh in by phone. The Palmer taxidermist argued in favor of an "Alaskans first" policy limiting the number of Outside guides and ending annual hunts for non-resident hunters.
Stocker said sheep proposals circulated 30 years ago, when he chaired a Mat-Su advisory council to the state game board.
"We sent proposals on this. They all just went south ... they just buried 'em," he said. "Here we are today. The weather caught up with us, sheep numbers are down; guides are up."
Over the last 10 years, the state Board of Game has fielded 121 sheep hunt proposals "and we've only passed a handful of them," board chair Ted Spraker acknowledged before the session got underway. "I feel as a board member that's not responsible to the public's requests."
Spraker offered the crowd two remedies to consider: Rework existing but outdated plans governing sheep hunts and how the state manages the animals or create a new working group to come up with new policies.
His tally after the two-hour session's end showed the audience liked the idea of relying on management plans but was mixed on the working groups. Some liked both ideas, a few favored neither.
Rod Arno, the well-known executive director of the influential Alaska Outdoors Council, got some laughs when he announced he hadn't killed a sheep since 1966. Arno called the formation of a work group "premature" and said the state needs to revisit old plans to get better data on sheep populations and land available for hunting.
A few new ideas came up as well. Guide Aaron Bloomquist announced the formation of a new chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation -- the group revoked its Alaska chapter in 2013 -- with plans to focus on disease prevention, which he called the "No. 1 problem" in the Lower 48's bighorn sheep decline.
Wasilla author Tony Russ, who literally wrote the book on Dall sheep -- "Sheep Hunting in Alaska" -- suggested limits to resident sheep hunts if the state cuts back on non-Alaskans. Russ also liked the idea of cutting down on airplanes "a little bit" and adding a 12-hour waiting period to hunts.
"Do a little bit of everything," Russ suggested.