Wayne Heimer, Dall sheep “geezer-biologist,” here with hot Dall sheep news and commentary. This is gonna take a while, so grab a cup of coffee.
I presume you all know the “who gets to hunt Dall sheep (and now ‘when”)” issue has been fermenting with the Board of Game over the last several Board cycles. It was caused by a well-orchestrated deluge of regulation change proposals to the Board of Game. These proposals came primarily from a few disaffected resident hunters, and successfully re-ignited the ever-smoldering resentment Alaska resident hunters have always harbored toward guides and their non-resident clients.
Virtually all of these proposals rely on the folklore-based myths that:
• We’re killing all the sheep
• Nonresidents kill all the big sheep
• Sheep hunting sucks compared to the good old days
• Ram horn size is getting smaller
• We’re over-harvesting trophy rams
• There are too many hunters and too few sheep
Fish and Game’s sheep harvest data refute all these myths. In fact:
• Only about 50% of harvestable legal rams are shot each year
• Nonresidents don’t kill larger rams than residents
• On average, neither group of hunters is very selective for large or old rams
• We have fewer total sheep hunters than ever
• Average ram horn size is greater than ever
• The percent of 40-inchers in the harvest is within normal ranges
• Resident hunter success is as high as ever (~30%)
• Resident hunter numbers have declined while nonresident numbers (and success) have remained constant
The Board of Game will meet this week to decide the fate of sheep hunting opportunity (and management). The meeting will be in Wasilla, with the sheep stuff scheduled primarily for Friday. Department reports will be during the day and there will be a special work session Friday night. Public testimony will begin on Saturday. If you want to comment during the Friday night work session, but can’t get to the Best Western Lake Lucille Inn in Wasilla at 6:30pm, the work session is accessible via teleconference at 1 (844) 586-9085.
The Board has creatively positioned itself to act on the huge backlog of proposals. Proposal #208 (from the Board itself) summarizes the apparent intent of the existing backlog of proposals submitted over the last six years by special-interests. It (#208) contains options for public comment. I favor the “no action” option. It’s not that I want “nothing to happen.” As I understand it, the “no action” option includes a review/rewrite of our existing Dall sheep management plans. I’m for that. I’m definitely NOT FOR THE OPTION THAT WOULD PUT RESIDENTS ON DRAWING PERMITS FOR CURRENTLY OPEN AREAS.
For me, this whole business raises the question, “Why did this happen?” If you care to read on (how’s that coffee doing?), I’ll share more about the history of these issues and my views on them. It may be more than you find interesting. If you want to quit now, (or skip to the end of this lengthy post) that’s certainly OK. I just wanted to share my ideas, offer you some facts, and make sure you know about your opportunities to participate. Here’s “the whole load.”
Wayne Heimer’s view of the present Dall sheep hunting opportunity conflict
During territorial days, hunting regulations were harsh and “top down” from the federal government. The needs of local people were ignored. Consequently, the emerging State of Alaska reacted by assuring local interests would always receive full consideration. That’s why we have our Board of Game/Advisory Committee system. However, if left unchecked, this “local or special-interest system” virtually assures that locals will always “vote others off of the island.” That’s what humans do.
Local (special) interests are generally contrary to the general public interest. That’s why our constitution’s framers established policies of maximum use consistent with scientific conservation and general public interest.
To make this work, we have a traditional American “check and balance” system between branches of government. The Board of Game/Advisory Committee system exists as part of the Legislative Branch of government. The Department of Fish and Game exists in the Executive Branch. Hence, I reason, the Board of Game exists to factor local and special interest input into allocation of harvest opportunity while the Department is to uphold scientific management and the maximum use policy prescribed in Alaska’s Constitution. These two entities must work in concert to produce regulations that harmonize both general public and special interests with Alaska’s natural resource use policy as defined by the Alaska Constitution and Statutes. When there's a conflict, Alaska's Constitution and Statutes take precedence.
Some “nuts and bolts” of management:
Our constitution says the Commissioner of Fish and Game is the chief manager of Alaska’s fish and game. He/she acts through the Department of Fish and Game. Alaska Statute Title 16 defines the commissioner’s duties to include (slightly paraphrased) ‘managing, protecting, maintaining, improving, and extending the game resources of the state in the interest of the economy and general well-being of the state.’ That would be clear enough if there were a definition of what “managing” is. I’ve never found one.
Generally, when asked to define “wildlife management,” biologists revert to Aldo Leopold’s abstraction about damping the normal fluctuations in wildlife populations to assure a stable, sustainable harvest. That doesn’t fit very well with Alaskan reality. So, after many years of thinking it over, I’ve proposed a general definition that I think may fit better. I’m certainly not Aldo Leopold, but I’ve seen things Aldo never imagined. He’s been gone a long time.
What is management?
I suggest that management is "intervening in an established system to produce, maintain, or expand a pre-defined benefit." I think this definition fits every management enterprise from business/financial management to human resources management, and will also serve for wildlife management.
Management in Alaska:
Alaska’s pre-defined benefit is listed in our Constitution (Article VIII). This benefit is maximum opportunity to harvest game (see Coghill and Campbell on Sustained Yield and the Alaska Constitution) primarily for human food.
Wildlife management in Alaska requires several essential components to produce Alaska’s predefined benefit. I suggest the essential components of management begin with research (a manager must know the details of the established system he/she is tweaking to yield benefits). Management also includes an understanding of and allegiance to policy (which defines the benefits to be produced, maintained, or enhanced). Next, management plans are required to define (so we can all agree on) how we’re going to produce those pre-defined benefits. Management plans are implemented by practical harvest regulations to assure the pre-defined benefits actually occur and are shared as constitutionally and legally mandated. Finally, regulatory enforcement is required to make things work as planned. To be successful, a manger must keep the public informed about what is going on in every facet of our common interest in management.
Reconciling these diverse challenges is not simple or necessarily intuitive. This is why requirements for becoming a wildlife manager in Alaska are set rather high in terms of education and experience.
The Department begins to stop managing:
Decades ago, Departmental leadership began to progressively divest itself of management responsibilities. During the 25 years I worked as a Dall sheep and general management biologist (1971-1997), the Department stepped away from regulating guiding, enforcement, marine mammal management, maximizing harvest opportunities, managing Alaska’s wildlife on federal lands, and allocation of hunting opportunity. These voids have been assumed by the Department of Commerce (guide qualifications and practices), the Department of Public Safety (enforcement), the Federal Government (marine mammals), the dissatisfied Alaska hunting public (which gave us the Intensive Management Law), and the Board of Game (allocation). Of course the federal government has asserted its management responsibility on federal lands—and, trust me, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
As a result, the remaining Commissioner’s responsibilities for wildlife management are limited to rather flexible population inventory and research, harvest tracking, and regulatory support activities designed to provide information to the Board for setting the seasons and bag limits which define allocation of opportunity to harvest.
With the Department separating itself from “allocation,” I think I see the Board of Game becoming the actual manager via its allocation function. This looks different than our constitution and laws, which call for the Department to be the manager. The Board’s bailiwick is to allocate harvest opportunities according to state policy. In the absence of a Commissioner willing to engage the Board of Game in pursuit of his/her responsibilities, the Board's designed-in populist inclination will predictably result in situations like the present, strange Dall sheep resident preference issue or other “local harvest” advantages.
This is not our new Commissioner, Sam Cotten's fault. Commissioners going back as far as the early 1970s have tended toward shifting tough management decisions away from their Departments to the Boards of Game and Fish. The Board of Fisheries has been the fish manager for decades already. This “management Board” concept gives rise to the common complaint that the commercial fishing industry (acting through the Board of Fish) manages Alaska’s fisheries harvest at the expense of subsistence and personal use fishers. The perennial struggle over which users will get Copper River salmon is an example.
The essence of today’s Dall sheep conflict:
Today’s conflict over Dall sheep hunting opportunity limitations comes down to whether a coordinated cadre of activist residents can manipulate our Board of Game/Advisory Committee system to secure preferential or exclusive use of Alaska’s legal Dall rams when there is no resource shortage. In general, Advisory Committees have rejected the bulk of the proposals. Whether the Board will follow this “advice,” remains to be seen.
On the surface, these proposals “look like simple allocation,” but I think they represent a larger problem. As things stand, the Board may alter overall state policy if it passes public proposals that limit Dall sheep hunting opportunity when it isn’t necessary. I argue that the Department should be insisting the Board apply constitutional and statutory standards in allocating harvest opportunity in support of the commissioner’s mandate to “manage, protect, maintain, improve, and extend” Alaska’s Dall sheep resource. If the Commissioner can’t see it, I’m afraid the Board will have to rescue his office.
I see today’s Dall sheep situation as the result of a series of “ timid” or “disinterested” commissioners (mostly folks with commercial fishing focus) plus a series of wildlife directors who shifted the responsibility for difficult or unpopular policy decisions to the Board of Game. In a vacuum like this, only the vision of alert Board of Game members who see beyond their responsibility to consider local opinion is likely to limit the Board’s built-in populist inclinations. This places an unreasonable burden on the Board.
Given the passivity of a Department which thinks it should not be involved in allocation, only the integrity of the Board of Game membership currently stands between special interest dominance and neglect of the common use and maximum opportunity clauses of Alaska’s Constitution.
I do not expect the Board of Game to actually give in to the generated impression of a Dall sheep ram-harvest crisis. However, if the Board of Game should fail to see responsibilities beyond it’s established populist mandates, I can think of three ways we might solve this problem. All of these proposed solutions have the virtue (as I see it) of maintaining our Board of Game as an “allocation” board rather than having it become a “management” board as has happened with the Board of Fisheries.
First, we can encourage our new Commissioner, Sam Cotten, to engage with the Board of Game as the “check” on the Board's legitimate local/Alaska-preference orientation. This will require a major shift away from established tradition for the Commissioner's Office. There may still be time to do this. The Board plans to hear arguments on sheep management this week, but won’t make its decision till March. That gives the Commissioner time to participate at this level.
Alternately, the Legislature (which is responsible for its Board of Game) may have to help the Board to assure adherence to Alaska’s state policies. Only the legislature can establish resource management policy, the Boards can’t do it. At present, the Board of Game may effectively alter state policy by bowing to public pressure to limit Dall sheep hunting opportunity when there is no conservation-based need to do so. Legislative oversight is unlikely to be popular with the Board of Game, and seems unlikely to please the Department or Legislature either.
The other alternative I can imagine is for the Board of Game and the Department to cooperate as separate, legitimate government entities rather than blending into one. The mechanism for this cooperation is the management planning process.
The Board and Department currently have Board-approved, mutually-agreed-upon (and publicly reviewed) Dall sheep management plans on their books. These Dall sheep plans have been there for 40 years. When written, the Dall sheep management plans were the most biologically-based, publicly-driven, and use-backgrounded plans made by the Department.
I argue that before radically altering state policy or Dall sheep hunting opportunity, the backlog of special-interest proposals should be rejected by the Board. Then, competent professional biologists should review and update the management plans in light of what has changed during the last 40 years. Then the draft plans should be presented to the Alaska public for comment and revision. Finally, the plans should be sent to the appropriate entity for adoption as policy. If the plans are to have the force of policy, the legislature must be involved.
A great deal has happened in the last 40 years, including the pipeline road through the Brooks Range, the emergence of the federal government as “managers” rather than stewards of federal lands, the subsistence movement, increased awareness of Dall sheep biology and predation on sheep, creation of vast "no hunting" zones with ANILCA, many more state controlled-use areas for Dall sheep, and federal overreach into access via federal regulations, which have altered the interest in Dall sheep hunting in Alaska. Overall, sheep hunting in Alaska has declined 50% since passage of ANICA.
1. The existing proposals to alter Dall sheep management are ill-thought, and should be rejected by the Board of Game.
2. Management plans are the way the Board of Game and the Department can effectively work together under existing state policy.
3. Alaska's Dall sheep management plans could clearly use a review, and obviously some significant revisions.
4. Competent professionals should lead the management planning review and re-drafting.
That the Commissioner and Board of Game cooperate to reject the special interest proposals the Board will consider this week. I also recommend the Board encourage the Department to review and revise its management plans with an eye toward enhanced allegiance to established policy, the last 40 years of biological discovery, and informed public opinion before considering any changes in harvest opportunity allocation between residents and nonresidents via season (or permits) and bag limit restrictions.
If you’ve managed to get this far, I congratulate you! And I thank you for your willingness to consider the musings of a “geezer” Dall sheep biologist.