I have been corresponding with Wayne Heimer who has, along with Valerius Geist, written perhaps more about Dall sheep research and management than anyone currently alive. For those who know him, he needs no introduction. Those who do not, and who are also interested in Dall sheep would do well to search him out online. His many research papers, together with his involvement in Dall sheep management issues both as a sheep biologist with ADFG and as a retired private citizen, do give him an authoritative voice in this area. At any rate, he wrote a paper which I asked him to simplify for weaker minds like mine, and I just received the rewrite. You might find it of interest. Feel free to comment on it (without making it personal), and ask questions. Wayne has commented here in the past, and though I know he's a pretty busy guy, he might be able to respond here in the forums. If not, you can reach him in Fairbanks.
Owing to the length of his letter, I am breaking it into two sections (the forum software doesn't allow posts over a certain length).
Here's Wayne's letter to the forum community here:
Forum readers: Wayne Heimer here. I recently received a couple of “forum related” questions about the Board of Game and the Department. Here are my answers:
Question #1: It seems apparent that the Board is not recognizing a biological reason for reducing Dall sheep hunting opportunity. What do you think about this?
I think this was/is an appropriate response by the Board. There are no data suggesting a legal ram shortage requiring reallocation of opportunity. There’s a lot of populist public pressure to shut down nonresidents alleging a shortage, but no data-driven harvest evidence of an actual biological (or hunter-success-altering) shortage of harvestable rams.
There are fewer sheep than at some times in the past. It’s also true that there are probably more sheep than at some times in the past. The late 1930s and early ‘40s were a period of notable Dall sheep decline and scarcity. The most likely cause of the decline we saw this time was weather. Our harvests of full curl rams are not linked to population declines.
The most current guesses (from ADF&G) seem to indicate that the overall decline has slowed or stopped. From estimates given to the Board of Game’s Dall Sheep Working Group, of the 14 sheep populations rated with respect to present trend, only the Kenai and Western Brooks Range are rated as “decreasing” at present. The Talkeetnas and Chugach are rated as “stable at low levels.” The Mentastas, TMA, and Central and Eastern Brooks Range are rated as “stable or decreasing.” The rest are rated as either “stable” or “stable or increasing.” Given that 12 of the 14 populations are rated as at some form of stability, that harvest success remains stable, and the harvest rate of legal rams is low with respect to recruitment, there is no currently demonstrable biological or “hunter-available-ram" problem.
All the hard data we have indicate that even though sheep populations are not what they once were, we still produce about twice as many harvestable rams as we take each year. Hence, there is no demonstrable statewide shortage or “need to make more” for human use at this time. If we foresee significantly compromised subsistence opportunity or increased full curl ram hunting demand within the next decade, we should start predator control now because Dall sheep population recovery takes time, and growing a legal ram takes eight years. There’s nothing we can do about the weather.
So, I figure, in this case, the Department SHOULD have advised the Board to reject any proposal to limit anybody’s Dall ram hunting opportunity. I don’t know what the Department did during deliberations. To date, the Department has tried to “stay out” of allocation disputes between users.
Whatever the Department did or didn’t do, the Board apparently rejected all the requests to make draconian reallocations. I understand they threw the Alaska Professional Hunters “a bone” by defining harvest of “2nd degree kindred” as bag limit for the “guiding resident relative” (Proposal #51). They gave “residents” something by putting nonresidents on a “one every four years” schedule. Also, they kept the prohibition on looking for harvestable rams from aircraft (which should keep the Resident Hunters of Alaska (a new NGO) going strong. The Board also established a youth hunt (which may be outside the “window” when one can’t “spot” for harvestable rams from aircraft). Also, the Board deliberated other “housekeeping” type stuff regarding subsistence Dall sheep hunting, but took no action. The overall situation remains pretty much “status quo” as far as most Dall sheep hunting goes.
MORE DETAILS AND OPINION
Whether it made any difference or not, Joe Want and I have been trying to bring accurate data to bear on this issue for about six years. Perhaps the Department and Board are beginning to realize the claims of calamity are more populist passion than objective reality. Still, the Department remained “squishy” about taking a firm stand against the populist pressure from residents.
Instead of relying on the strength of the data, the Department gently used the term, “no conservation concern” to allow the Board and public to “figure out” no drastic allocation was warranted. This “softness” stems from a 25-year old Division of Wildlife tradition of non-intervention in allocation. This tradition is not the fault of the present Division. It has existed longer than any present Department employees have been working. Still, I’d prefer the Department were more forthcoming, and dump its internal tradition in favor of representing the public interest. I think it could do this by basing it’s positions unambiguously on the best science we have at present, and making firm recommendations to the Board. The Department’s using the term, “no conservation concerns,” has neither pleased nor pacified the passionately pissed populists.
Similarly, the Board has a hard time telling the public, “No.” Again, it’s an extra-legal tradition. Our laws say the public is to advise the Board (and the Board must respond to bad advice by explaining why it is bad), but the public is not to direct the Board.
A BOARD MEETING HIGHLIGHT FOR ME
The newly-formed NGO, Resident Hunters of Alaska (RHAK) Executive Director tactically exploited the Board’s reluctance to refuse the public when he testified compellingly at the Board of Game in Fairbanks. His testimony centered on allegations that ADF&G has neglected “conservation concerns.” The testimony reminded me of a “Hell Fire and Brimstone” sermon condemning the Department (and Board?) as sinners.
The condemnation of the Department for ‘Having no conservation concerns’ when the Western Brooks Range went down! followed, in perfect preaching cadence, by, They had no ‘conservation concerns’ when the Chugach failed! and then, They had no ‘conservation concerns’ when GMU 20 got out of hand! were stridently presented. Neither Jesse Jackson nor Al Gore could have done better.
This testimony was so convincing that I, myself, wondered, “Could/should I have done more? Where did I fail?” I may not have been the only one affected. It was a great sermon. Now, I’ve listened to a great many strident sermons in my life, and they always get me thinking (usually after I recover from guilt in the Church parking lot). In this instance, at least two questions came to mind.
Brace yourself, or skip to “SO WHAT” at the end. I’m going “personally philosophical” here.
First: “What are legitimate “conservation concerns?”
As a “producer” of sustainable harvests, I reason a “conservation concern” must, first of all, be a factor that affects harvest opportunity. That begins with production of healthy lambs. Of course, producing healthy lambs (in sufficient quantity to sustain human uses) requires enough healthy ewes on the mountain. Keeping enough ewes on the mountain to produce the Dall sheep we need to sustain human harvests can only be done one way, protecting ewes from untimely deaths. This means keeping the maximum sustainable number of ewes alive throughout their potentially viable reproductive lives. Ewes can produce lambs as long as they can breathe effectively, so that means limiting ewe mortality.
The only way to extend ewe lives is to limit predation by both humans (primarily subsistence hunters in Alaska) and other predators (wolves, eagles, coyotes, bears, etc.).
In the larger picture, the Department and Board have done a good job of protecting ewes from human predators where the subsistence history has been manageable. This has been achieved via “ram only” hunting restrictions in most cases, and reflects a “conservation concern/action” by the Department and Board. This actual conservation and management concern has been “managed” for so long that the RHAK Executive Director overlooked it.
In areas where political realities/correctness have overridden this protection for ewes, the Department (and more extremely the feds) have not afforded ewes protection from harvests. I have argued “forever,” that this reality is more important than most managers appreciate, but I have not been under the political pressure to accommodate risky subsistence management practices like those who make those local decisions. What has happened in subsistence provision has been that a “management concern” (liberal provision for traditional subsistence uses) has overridden my “biological concern.” Ewe harvests in intact arctic ecosystems should always have been recognized as risky business. However, pragmatic or deer-trained managers have traditionally assumed ewe harvests would be either insignificant or sustainable as compensatory mortality. These assumptions have never been validated in an Alaskan situation. They are highly questionable in light of Dall sheep life strategies.
This takes me to the RHAK testimony’s condemnation of the Department in the Western Brooks Range. It is fine to invite, after-the-fact inference, that the biological and political realities extant there should have been dealt with more biologically than in terms of human sociology. While I agree, that’s not a criticism I’m willing to level at the Department/Board. It just means that other compelling issues transcended the simple biology of Dall sheep in the Western Brooks Range.
Managers in the Western Brooks Range could just as well have protected Dall ewes from other predators as from humans, but in the case of the Western Brooks Range, I doubt either would have made much difference to overall sheep survival there. When there’s an unusual event like the icing in the maritime-influenced Western Brooks Range (on habitats recognized to be marginal for Dall sheep for at least 40 years), what’s a manager to do? The Department could have worried more about these Dall sheep crashing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference in today’s overall Dall sheep abundance there. The Western Brooks Range sheep decline was unmanageable and "totally natural.” In nature, that happens sometimes.
(continued on next post)