Despite public outcry and opposition from the state wildlife agency, the Federal Subsistence Board in Alaska has decided to close all Dall sheep hunting opportunities along the Brooks Range for at least the next two years.
The board voted to unanimously approve the measure on July 26, 2022, citing declining mountain sheep populations in the Dalton Highway Corridor Management Area. Wildlife Special Action (WSA) 22-02 was submitted by the Western Interior Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council and was written and promoted by Jack L. Reakoff, a councilman from Wiseman, Alaska.
The proposal requested “that Dall sheep hunting on Federal public lands in Units 24A and 26B, west of the Sagavanirktok River, be closed to all users for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 wildlife regulatory years.”
The action received strong opposition from the public and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game prior to the vote.
The Federal Subsistence Board oversees the Federal Subsistence Management Program, which is “a multi-agency effort to provide the opportunity for a subsistence way of life by rural Alaskans on Federal public lands and waters while maintaining healthy populations of fish and wildlife.”
The board consists of the regional directors of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US Forest Service, and three public members appointed by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture.
Whom the Closure Impacts
The closure affects all federal lands on both sides of the Dalton Highway in Management Units 24A and 26B, including the well-known Dalton Highway Corridor Management Area. The area previously had an archery-only season, and the closure affects both bow hunters and federally qualified subsistence hunters.
The Dalton Highway, nicknamed the “Haul Road,” was constructed in the 1970s to assist in constructing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The highway’s primary function is still servicing the pipeline, and it provides access to nearby oil fields. However, it also runs through remote wilderness areas and allows sportsmen and women to access millions of acres of public land.
Reasons Behind Dall Sheep Hunting Suspension
A concerning decline in Alaska’s sheep population is the stated reason for the closure, but those who opposed the measure said numbers weren’t critical enough to justify such an extreme reaction.
The board said that Dall sheep numbers appear stable across the entire Brooks Range. However, there is concern that some local populations have reached critical levels due to several consecutive, brutal winters and several late spring snow events, which have resulted in elevated mortality rates for both new lambs and mature rams since 2012.
Dall sheep inhabit some of Alaska’s most rugged and remote areas, which makes accurately assessing population numbers virtually impossible.
The WSA22-02 proposal stated a 25% decline in the sheep population since the last survey was conducted in 2012, but those numbers seem to be based solely on observations made by subsistence hunters in the area.
The Department of Fish & Game’s scheduled 2021 population composition and trend survey was not conducted in Units 24, 25A, 26B, and 26C due to poor weather conditions that made flying dangerous. The department opposed the closure because they believe “current population numbers do not meet the closure criteria.”
Fish & Game also supports the current full-curl hunting restrictions for non-subsistence users, claiming it should not negatively impact the current sheep populations in the closure area.
The full-curl restriction allows hunters to quickly age a ram in the field. A legal ram under the full-curl restriction shows that “the tip of at least one horn has grown through 360 degrees of a circle described by the outer surface of the horn, as viewed from the side.”
A ram’s horns grow as they age, and each season adds an “annulus ring,” which is similar to the growth rings on a tree. Rams that reach full-curl horn growth are usually at least 8 years old and mostly past their prime breeding years.
The full-curl restrictions, coupled with notoriously low success rates for Dall sheep hunters in the archery-only units, means hunting wouldn’t have a major impact on sheep numbers in the closure area, according to the department’s logic.
The Dall sheep hunting suspension has also faced harsh criticism from the public. Comments against the closure outnumbered those in favor by nearly 11 to 1.
The passing of WSA22-02 comes on the heels of the board’s March 30 decision to close summer caribou and moose hunting on some federal lands to non-federally qualified subsistence users.
The loss of another hunting opportunity in the Last Frontier State has many Alaska hunters feeling frustrated. Many feel the board, which is composed of non-elected federal bureaucrats, doesn’t seem to be making decisions based on data and hard facts and that important game management decisions should be left to state fish and game departments, not the federal government.
The Dall sheep, aka the thinhorn sheep, is native to northwestern North America. They live amid the rugged cliffs in the mountainous alpine areas of northwestern British Columbia, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska, feeding on grasses, sedges, and shrubs during different seasons. They are prized by hunters for their massive curling horns and the difficult terrain that must be navigated just to glass them — they are a true mountain hunter’s challenge.