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Meeting Sets Tone for Conservation of Alaska Dall’s Sheep

January 27, 2023
posted in: Conservation, News

By: Chester Moore

A serious downturn in Alaska’s Dall’s sheep population linked to extreme climate events has raised concerns among hunter-conservationists and wildlife managers.

This inspired the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) to host an Alaska Dall’s Sheep Strategy Meeting at the 2023 Sheep Show in Reno, NV.

“Can we do anything about heavy snow loads, icing, and other issues related to the climate? Probably not,” said WSF President & CEO Gray Thornton in his opening remarks.

“But what we can do is identify other problems that are having an impact and work together to find solutions to restore a healthy Dall’s sheep herd.”

Facilitated by Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation President Kevin J. Kehoe, it touched on concerns and brought together hunters, outfitters, biologists, and other interested parties to put forth positive solutions.

Kehoe emphasized the meeting was not about allocation but about conservation.

“Conservation is about putting and keeping wild sheep on the mountain. Allocation is about who and how the animals get harvested. That process will be handled by the Alaska Board of Game. We’re here to work together to find a path forward to help the sheep.”

And the sheep do need help.

Populations are down, and it varies by range, but estimates range from 50-70 percent across the state. While many previous declines are believed to be the result of a single event, as many as six adverse winter weather events have occurred over the last decade, coupled with some dry summers.

“Although natural recovery has occurred in the past, it is a long process, often taking 10 to 15 years,” Kehoe said.

He referenced data from Game Management Unit 20A where a decline in the 1990s with favorable weather afterward took 15+ years to recover. If current weather patterns continue or worsen, it could create a permanently degraded population.

But as with any climate-based issue involving ungulates, other factors make the problem worse.

Enter predation.

With a variety of predators focused on lambs and adult sheep, there are some concerns about an increased threat from the sky.

Golden eagles kill up to 30 percent of Dall’s sheep lambs in some areas. A study called Golden Eagle Abundance in Alaska, published in the December 2021 issue of The Journal of Raptor Research shows more than three times the golden eagles are summering in Alaska than previously thought. The new estimate is 12,700 birds.

Kehoe opened the room for comments and discussion by asking the question, “Are we doing everything we can to help facilitate and ensure the potential natural recovery of Dall sheep?”

As the room opened for questions and comments, several voiced concerns about another potential threat with loosely-managed helicopter activity related to mining.

“Helicopters and geological survey work for mineral extraction in sheep habitat is worrisome. There are sections where you see rams pushed off prime habitats due to stress from constant helicopter activity. We see entire areas where there are no sheep, and there is a lot of mining activity. This needs to be looked at,” said one concerned hunter.

Others echoed his sentiments with anecdotes of seeing these impacts firsthand.

Habitat loss was brought up and was directly linked to climate issues. Brush lines are getting higher, according to many reports, giving sheep fewer options not only from a food availability perspective but also in terms of safety.

Thick brush gives predators the edge, whereas a more open habitat allows sharp-eyed sheep to have the advantage.

Gathering more data on herds spread across vast areas was brought up with a better flow of information from hunters and outfitters to wildlife officials, something several wanted to see.

One suggestion involved using citizen science to help broaden the scope of sheep-related information. For example, an app like British Columbia’s Mountain Goat and Wild Sheep Natal App, allows citizens to log and share the presence of newborn kids and lambs and nanny/kid and ewe/lamb groups.

Alaskan Outfitter Aaron Bloomquist asked for a show of hands for how many outfitters were in the room. More than a dozen responded.

“Now, leave your hands up if you have shown restraint and voluntarily reduced sheep harvest in the last few years for the sake of conservation,” he said.

Everyone left up their hands.

This reflected a group of people from diverse backgrounds within the hunting-conservation community coming together to tackle what has emerged as a major issue in Alaska.

A 90-minute meeting certainly wasn’t going to solve the problem, especially one that is greatly linked to climatic issues. It did, however set the tone for cooperation, creative solutions, and thinking big on behalf of Alaska’s iconic and beloved Dall’s sheep.

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