Dall sheep populations have been shrinking across Alaska for two decades.
No one knows that better than sheep hunters -- one reason why the Alaska Board of Game has fielded more than 110 proposals to change sheep hunting regulations the past five years.
Most of the proposals are designed to handicap the other guy. In general, Alaska hunters would like to restrict nonresidents and guides, while the guides want the state to maintain or provide more opportunities for nonresidents, who make up the bulk of their clients. It's the Board of Game's job to sort out competing claims, always putting the resource, the sheep, first.
The board will consider changes to Dall sheep hunting regulations throughout Southcentral Alaska in two upcoming meetings. Its balancing act will be greatly facilitated by a comprehensive summary of recent harvest statistics and a detailed survey of Dall sheep hunters and guides, both available online.
Most Alaska sheep populations declining
From 1990 to 2010 Fish and Game's statewide sheep population estimate fell 21 percent, from about 56,740 to 45,010 sheep.
Sheep numbers are falling across the Brooks Range and on the Kenai Peninsula. In the north Wrangell Mountains, they're stable or decreasing, and in the south Wrangells they're stable or increasing. Most other mountain ranges have stable numbers even though some of those populations -- for example in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains -- are at low levels. The number of sheep in the remote western Alaska Range is unknown.
While populations in some portions of the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains showed some improvement over the past five years, deep snow in the winter of 2011-2012 and late snow in 2012-2013 appears to have knocked some of the wind out of their recovery.
The major influence on sheep population trends seems to be weather in coastal mountain ranges. Dall sheep can cope with dry snow, even deep, dry snow. Mountain winds often blow dry snow off foraging areas on high ridges. However, heavy, wet snow that avalanches or freezes into a crust -- or freezing rain -- can make foraging and traveling difficult. Avalanches are a significant cause of death in some areas.
Predators seem to have a larger influence on Interior sheep ranges. Wolves are top predators, but coyotes and golden eagles can kill a lot of lambs. Disease may also play a role, often by weakening sheep and making them more vulnerable to accidents or predation.
Highly regulated hunting by humans is not a significant factor. In most areas hunters may shoot only rams with full-curl horns, which includes those about 8 years old based on annual horn rings. If an 8-year-old ram hasn't been able to achieve at least one full-curl horn, it's probably never going to happen. Not many rams live longer than 10 years, and a 12-year-old sheep is eligible for social security.
Sheep hunters also declining
In recent years the number of sheep hunters has fluctuated around 2,500, roughly 20 percent fewer than in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Yet one of the most common complaints of sheep hunters is overcrowding.
The steady erosion in the number of hunters has affected harvests. Annual harvests ranged between 1,000 and 1,400 sheep during the late 1980s, when sheep populations were high. These days, it's closer to 800.
Because hunters know legal rams are scarce, most hunting effort occurs in a short period. In many areas, more than half of the total harvest is shot during the first 10 days of the season, with most of these sheep taken during the first five days. Later in the season, hunters can be checkmated by snow and ice in the mountains, distracted by other hunting opportunities such as moose, or frustrated by the early harvest of most legal rams.
ATV use is increasing, particularly among resident hunters.
Few resident hunters employ professional guides. By contrast, nonresident hunters are required to use guides in Alaska. Residents may guide relatives within a second degree of kindred, and these hunters may constitute as much as 30 percent of the nonresident hunters in some management units.
Relative proportions of resident and nonresident hunters haven't changed much in four decades. However, nonresident hunters tend to be more successful, due to the experience and efforts of professional guides. In the past five years, nonresidents made up about 20 percent of the sheep hunters but harvested 40 percent of the sheep.
The difference is not lost on the resident hunters, many of whom stalked sheep during their population peak two decades ago.
Sheep hunter survey
Believing that legal rams are scarce and the mountains are overcrowded, residents have asked the Board of Game to make a variety of adjustments to existing hunting regulations. Some of these include establishing earlier hunts for residents or shorter seasons for nonresidents, restricting numbers of nonresident hunters, and creating more archery, youth, or walk-in hunts.
Guides have also asked the board for special consideration. Some guides would like to curtail the practice of residents guiding relatives, limit the use of ATVs by resident hunters, or limit hunters to one sheep every three years, which would affect resident hunters more than nonresidents.
Anticipating an avalanche of proposals, the Board of Game paid for a survey of sheep hunters and guides. Todd Brinkman, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, designed questionnaires with the help of sheep managers and hunters. He administered the survey in summer 2014, both online and by mail. He analyzed responses from 698 resident and 269 nonresident sheep hunters as well as 69 guides and transporters. Response rates were 37, 52 and 50 percent, respectively.
In many ways, the survey reflected the perceptions and biases expressed in the myriad Board of Game proposals. The survey found that hunter satisfaction was strongly linked to the following factors: perceptions of crowding while sheep hunting, seclusion from other hunters, numbers of sheep seen, and opportunities to hunt every year.
According to Brinkman, declines in resident hunter numbers are "associated with a decline in the quality of sheep hunts driven by more competition with other hunters," especially nonresidents who hire professional guides.
All three groups agreed that more professional guides -- some 130 master and 930 assistant guides are licensed by Alaska -- and few legal rams were two of the top three causes of crowding and competition. Resident hunters believed the other top cause was too many nonresidents, while nonresidents decried the overabundance of resident hunters and guides thought the number of commercial transporters was excessive.
To address hunter satisfaction and reduce harvest pressure on sheep populations, Brinkman suggested reducing either hunter expectations or densities.
Survey results indicated that residents would prefer to address the problem by reducing nonresident hunter numbers. Eighty-eight percent of resident hunters believed that an upper limit of 10 percent of sheep permits or tags should be allocated to nonresidents.
Some professional guides told Brinkman that reducing the number of nonresident sheep permits will significantly reduce state revenue for management and research of sheep. According to Brinkman, with an annual average of 450 nonresident sheep hunters paying $425 per tag, Fish and Game generates an estimated $191,250 annually from these tag sales. Capping the number of nonresidents at 10 percent of total sheep hunters, about half of the current participation rate, would reduce revenue by $95,625.
Obviously, if nonresident participation is halved, professional guides, who typically charge clients thousands of dollars, will be the big losers.
Upcoming Board of Game meetings
There are several ways to learn more about this issue and to share your thoughts with the Board of Game.
The board will hold a public work session focusing on Dall sheep at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13 in Wasilla's Best Western Lake Lucille Inn. The work session will provide an overview of statewide management options -- motorized access restrictions, early seasons for resident hunters, bag-limit changes, new archery and youth hunts -- as well as Fish and Game's current sheep management plans.
The deliberative portion of the meeting will run through Feb. 20 at the same location. Public testimony begins at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 14. The meeting's agenda, proposals, and other important information are available online.
A month later the board will consider sheep hunting proposals for the Anchorage area and Kenai Peninsula from March 13-17 at the University of Alaska Anchorage student union. Public testimony will begin 8:30 a.m. March 14. The meeting agenda and all proposals are available online.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org