Decline in Dall sheep population forces hunt closure in western Brooks Range

The population of Dall sheep in the Northwest Arctic has declined by more than half in the past three years, prompting state and federal agencies to halt the annual hunt.

Results of the most recent survey, conducted over the course of a week earlier this summer by officials from the National Park Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show a decline of between 50 and 75 percent compared to a count done in 2011. The federal hunt is being cancelled through a temporary special action from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of conservation concerns. The state hunt was canceled as of August 9.

Reasons for the drop in sheep are many, but harsh winters -- prolonged, record cold a couple years ago, and warm and icy last winter -- resulting in starvation and a loss of habitat over the past few years are the most plausible cause, said Chris McKee, the wildlife division supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Subsistence Management, in August.

"I think they had an inkling that the numbers were down, but I don't know if anybody expected such a drastic decline," McKee said. "It is a crisis-type situation and the Park Service felt that any harvest could have a detrimental effect."

Dall sheep hunting will be closed in game units 23 and 26A for the remainder of the 2014/2015 regulatory year.

At a hearing last month in Kotzebue a handful of locals attended or called in to ask questions about the closure, McKee said.

"I think that most people were aware of the situation with the sheep," McKee said.

The federal public lands in Unit 23 and Unit 26A, runs west of Howard Pass and the Etivluk River.

Because the survey happened later in the summer, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service didn't realize that the situation was dire until just before the season was set to open. Comments from last week's hearing will be summarized and provided to the Federal Subsistence Board this week for its consideration on the special action request.

"Everything was on an accelerated timeframe to get the special action request from the Park Service, and then to go through the analysis, and then get it through all the necessary levels of review that it has to go through on the federal side before the board can take action," McKee explained. "I assume that the Federal Subsistence Board will act very quickly on this once they get it in their hands."

And while the federal hunt took a little longer to close than the state side, people are aware of the situation and no one has applied for a permit to hunt in the interim, McKee said in August.

The temporary action closure will be in effect until the April next year on the federal side, at which time the National Park Service will take stock of the situation and go from there.

The state closure took effect on Aug. 9 and will extend until the end of June 2015.

"This emergency order closes all sheep seasons in Game Management Units 23 and 26(A) for all resident and nonresident hunters due to severe decline in sheep numbers in the contiguous populations of the DeLong Mountains and Schwatka Mountains," read a release from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "General season hunts by harvest ticket for residents and nonresidents with full-curl bag limits are closed by this action."

According to the agency, low reproductive potential and poor lamb production over a multi-year period have resulted in the current situation.

"Other contributing factors may include predation, disease, range deterioration from when sheep numbers were higher, and large numbers of migratory caribou competing for, and impacting, sheep forage habitat at lower elevations," read the release.

Of the 102 sheep observed in 2014 by NPS and department biologists, there were only 15 rams less than full-curl, one full-curl ram, and only two lambs.

"The level of decline exceeds the depleted population from severe winters in 1989 through 1991. The large decline in the overall population, the low numbers of rams in the population, and the apparent very low recruitment rate all suggest that any level of harvest could be detrimental to the population, prolong the decline, and limit recovery."

This story originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and has been republished with permission.