Board of Game meets in Nome to regulate use of wild life resources
In the first order of business, the state Board of Game chose Ted Spraker of Soldotna for another term as chairman, and then Stosh Hoffman of Bethel as vice chair.
The panel of seven poured over 43 proposals for the Arctic/Western Region which the public and agencies submitted to adjust current regulations based on changing abundance of game, hunting opportunities and biological research. The board members and representatives from the Alaska Dept. of Law, Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game Subsistence Division, Division of Wildlife Conservation, and board support staff filled the front half of the Mini Convention Center from Jan. 16 through Jan. 20. Members of the Board of Game are Ted Spraker, Soldotna; Stosh Hoffman, Bethel; Larry Van Daele, Kodiak; Tom Lamal, Fairbanks; Jerry Burnett, Juneau; Allen (Al) Barrette, Fairbanks; and Orville Huntington, Huslia.
The board uses biological and socio-economic information provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, public comment received from people inside and outside of the state, and guidance from the Alaska Department of Public Safety and Alaska Department of Law when creating regulations they find sound and enforceable.
The Arctic Western Region, AWR for short, includes Game Management Units 18, 22, 23 and 26A. Proposals from the Nome area GMU 22 touched seasons, bag limits areas and rights-to hunt of residents and nonresidents concerning musk oxen, hares, bears, caribou and moose.
Kicking off the board’s consideration of Nome area proposals, Bill Dunker, ADF&G area biologist, delivered an overview of Game Management Unit 22. Dunker introduced, Sara Germain, assistant area biologist, who presented a portion of proposals.
“Unit 22 is a 25,500 sq. mile area consisting of five subunits—22A through 22 E—which includes most of the Seward Peninsula, Eastern Norton Sound, St. Lawrence Island and Little Diomede Island,” Dunker said.
He described the terrain, saying it varies from rugged mountains and river valleys to flat coastal wetlands. Spruce forests characterize the eastern portions of the unit. Western portions of the unit are largely treeless tundra, covered with willow thickets along the right parent corridors. Approximately 9,000 people live in Unit 22, residing in 15 coastal communities. The region’s population is 79 percent Alaska Native, mostly Inupiat Eskimo. A majority of Unit 22 residents depend on subsistence hunting and fishing to meet their nutritional needs during snow free months. Access to most of the unit is limited to boats, ATVs and airplanes, except along the Nome road system in the central Seward Peninsula. Almost 400 miles of gravel roads provide access to portions of Units 22 B 22 C and 22 D. Once there’s snow cover, hunters and trappers disperse by snow machine throughout the unit in pursuit of bears, moose, caribou, musk ox and fur bearers.
Dunker continued, “The number of registration permit hunts administered in Unit 22 has grown considerably during the last 20 years. The ADF&G currently administers registration permit hunts for most caribou and brown bears in all or portions of the unit. Administering these hunts effectively requires a great deal of staff time before, during, and after the season. Despite these challenges, the benefits far outweigh the costs. The hunt management tools available through the department’s discretionary permanent authority and the quality of the information provided to the department through registration permit hunt reports makes these invaluable tools for wildlife management and those portions of the unit where they are administered. “
Dunker continues the rundown for live resources in Unit 22.
Moose have been present on the Seward Peninsula since about the 1930s. They quickly became an important subsistence resource in the decades that followed. Moose populations in most parts of the unit peaked in the mid-1980s and have since declined. Winter habitat limitations are believed to have caused large scale declines following severe winters in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, it is believed that poor recruitment has limited population growth. There is a positive Customary and Traditional Use determination for most in Unit 22. The harvestable surplus is near the upper threshold of the amount necessary for subsistence.
Moose hunts are administered throughout the unit for Alaska resident hunters in the more heavily hunted areas. Registration moose hunts with harvest quotas are in place in the more remote portions of the unit. Hunts are administered as general season hunts using the green harvest ticket for reporting, non-resident hunting opportunities provided in some areas through general season hunts registration permit hunts administered with harvest quotas as well as drawing permits. Harvest information from registration permit hunts is believed to be complete. A portion of the harvest from areas administered is general season. Those hunts such as 22 D —Remainder is not reporting to the department through the harvest ticket reporting system. In these instances, the department relies heavily upon the results of household subsistence surveys to inform management. Management activities for most in Unit 22 include the completion of a moose survey using the geospatial population estimator survey technique on an annual basis. These surveys will rotate between three survey areas.
Sex and age composition surveys occur in these areas during the spring and fall as the conditions allow and the need arises. Moose populations on the Seward Peninsula are characterized as low density with density estimates ranging from 0.21 to 0.38 moose per square mile. Survey results indicate that moose populations in Unit 22E and Unit 22A have experienced growth in recent years and are currently above levels with high bull—cow ratios.
Unit 22 B has in recent years experienced modest growth for the first time since the early 1990s. Unit 22 C has declined to below the management objective following management actions intended to reduce population densities in response to resource limitation concerns and is believed to be growing at this time. The status of most populations in unit 22 D is less certain. The department observed declines in abundance between 2011 and 2014 and since that time, recruitment has been poor. Low bull—cow ratios in portions of this area are a management concern. At this time, the board will consider six moose proposals in Unit 22.
Alex Hanson, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd research biologist, provided a detailed overview of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. From the early 1980s through the late 1990s, a portion of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd wintered in the Nulato Hills and on the Eastern Seward Peninsula. In 1996, for the first time in over 100 years, significant numbers of caribou reoccupied their historic range on the central Seward Peninsula. Since then, varying numbers of caribou have wintered on the central Seward Peninsula and progressively ranged further westward. The last several years it had been a bit more variable in terms of the availability of caribou on the Seward Peninsula.
The reindeer herding industry was heavily impacted by changes in the wintering distribution of the Western Arctic Herd. Bruce Davis, a local reindeer herder during the public comment portion of the meeting said most of the Seward Peninsula reindeer herds had been lost to migratory caribou. There currently are only four active reindeer herding operations. In order to protect the interest of these remaining reindeer herders in the region, portions of Unit 22 are closed to caribou hunting, except by emergency order, so as to prevent the incidental harvest of reindeer by hunters who may mistake them for caribou.
Beginning in regulatory year 2016, caribou harvest monitoring for Alaska residents hunting in the unit has been accomplished through the administration of registration caribou permit. RC 800 harvest reporting by non-resident hunters continues to use general season caribou harvest tickets. Management activities for caribou include collecting information from radio tracking flights about caribou numbers, locations and movements.
Location distribution information is used to justify emergency order openings when caribou are available for harvest in reindeer protection areas. ADF&G staff based in Nome also participate in fall and spring range-wide radio tracking surveys, including calving composition and recruitment surveys. They also participate in Western Arctic Herd photo census and annual collaring operations conducted on the Kobuk River near Onion Portage. The Board of Game considered Proposal 32, hunting seasons and bag limits for caribou in Unit 22 E. The proposal, submitted by a member of the public, Justin Horton, asked the board to extend the open caribou hunting area east of and including the Nuluk River Drainage, where one bull—no calves—could be taken by harvest ticket with hunt dates of Aug. 1 through Sept. 30. ADF&G was neutral on the proposal, biologist Sara Germain said, because it has not identified biological concerns associated with caribou in Unit 22.
The Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee supported the proposal 12-1. The Southern Norton Sound Advisory Committee took no action. The Unit 22E is the northern most section of Unit 22 and lacks road access. The 22E open caribou hunting area is bisected by the locally known Jealousy Creek just south of Shishmaref, according to Germain. The area is open to residents and nonresidents. The bag limit for residents is five caribou per day for a total of 20 caribou by registration permit RC 800.There is a year-around season on bulls while there is a shorter cow season from July 1 through March 31.Nonresidents have a bag limit of one bull by harvest ticket during the open season Aug.1 through Sept. 30.
The Board of Game currently does not allow hunting caribou west of the Sanaguich River drainage Unit 22E Remainder, because domestic reindeer may be in the area and be mistakenly killed for caribou. A season may be announced by emergency order. However, the department has never announced an open season by emergency order in this region. The measure seeks to open the area to 30 miles west of the Sanaguich River. Approximately 1,200 sq. miles would be added to the open hunting area in 22E.The measure could increase harvest, but would have no effect on seasons or bag limits. Caribou in the area primarily belong to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Part of the herd uses an area west of the Sanaguich River in winter, but that use has lessened in the past several years.
One of the goals of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd management is to lessen the potential conflict between caribou and domestic reindeer. Therefore, one of the major considerations in opening caribou hunting in Unit 22 is the local reindeer herding industry, Germain told the board. There are 17 grazing area permits for reindeer throughout the Seward Peninsula, however only four of them are currently active—two adjacent to the proposed expanded 22E hunt area., Germain said reindeer herders have observed their reindeer occasionally wandering into adjacent areas.
However, Justin Horton, who put forth Proposition 32, reasoned that people are looking for mature caribou bulls, so the prospect of domestic reindeer harvested are slim, along with his claim that reindeer are shorter, heavier, darker and in most cases equipped with ear tags.
The board of seven members unanimously voted down the proposal.
Musk oxen were reintroduced to the Seward Peninsula in the early 1970s. The population steadily increased through time and is believed to have peaked in 2010 at approximately 2,900 animals. After a period of rapid decline between 2010 and 2012 the population appears to have stabilized. The estimated abundance of musk ox in 2017 was approximately 2,300 animals,
A declining trend in bull-cow ratios prompted reductions in harvest quotas in an effort to increase bull-cow ratios. The application of reduced harvest rates has resulted in an apparent increase between 2012 and now in the number of mature bulls within the population as well as the mature bull-to-100 cow ratio.
The 2019 harvestable surplus of musk oxen was 33 bulls. The Seward Peninsula musk ox population has expanded its range from the point of introduction in the western portion of Unit 22 and can currently be found throughout the Seward Peninsula and in portions of Units 21D, 22A, 23 and 24D. Group observations from a distance sampling survey that was completed in 2017 and more or less represents ADF&G’s current understanding of the range of the population. Hunting opportunity for musk ox on the Seward Peninsula is provided through tier two hunts administered throughout portions of the range of the population. Hunting is not currently allowed in the easternmost portions of the populations expanded range.
However, ADF&G has engaged in discussions with community representatives from this area as a first step towards initiation of hunting in the area. Population surveys completed in the area indicate the population has met an agreed-upon minimum population level of between 200 and 250 musk oxen and is sufficient to allow hunting in the area to begin, given the current status of the herd and an improved understanding of the potential impacts of selective harvest patterns. “We anticipate future hunts throughout the Seward Peninsula. We’ll continue to utilize conservative harvest rates,” Dunker said.
Management activities for musk ox include the completion of a Seward Peninsula musk ox population survey in conjunction with wide composition surveys every two years. “In 2008 we began a collaring project in order to monitor adult female mortality and facilitate other management activities. That project continues to this day,” Dunker said.
Musk ox in the immediate area around Nome present unique management challenges. Musk ox frequent residential areas around Nome and conflicts between musk ox and local residents are common during the snow-free months. Conflicts of this nature are particularly common during the calving period and the rut, when musk oxen are more likely to respond defensively during an encounter. Department staff regularly respond to reports of musk ox that pose a threat to public safety and property. Staff have made efforts to educate the public, local law enforcement personnel, Department of Transportation staff, especially concerning musk oxen on the Nome Airport runways, and other local groups about ways in which these conflicts can be mitigated.
Although the available habitat in and around Nome may also be a factor, observations made in the spring of 2014 indicated that predation by brown bears may influence the distribution of musk ox groups causing them to move into residential areas in an effort to avoid predation. Following several years of above average brown bear harvest in Unit 22C, there was a noticeable reduction in the number of musk ox conflicts in the Nome area. The potential mitigating effect of increased brown bear harvest in Unit 22C on musk ox conflicts in the Nome area is considered when evaluating Unit 22 C brown bear regulations and harvest levels.
The persistent hazing of groups observed in these areas has had little longterm effects. In order to develop a more permanent solution department staff evaluated and made recommendations about the different types of fencing that could be used to exclude musk ox and other wildlife from airport property. These recommendations were incorporated into the design of a fence that was constructed around the entire perimeter of the Nome airport in the summer of 2019 and those efforts allowed the department to share some more information and knowledge with a local dog mushers and other folks that seem to have continuing problems with musk ox and the local area here. The board is considered two muskox proposals at this meeting.
Charlie Lean, Nome resident and biologist, submitted a proposal asking that musk oxen be added to the list of species that may be taken under a proxy permit in Game Management Unit 22.
The proposal sought to allow proxy hunting in Tier II muskoxen hunts in Unit 22B through 22E . The trophy value is destroyed in the field, subject to permit conditions. The hunts are allowed for meat, horn and fiber by Alaska residents. The products are distributed throughout the community, and because the harvest rate is high, there is rarely excess permits about the harvestable surplus.
“Families and communities have missed opportunities for harvest when the permit holder becomes disabled for whatever reason,” Proposal 30 stated.
The board voted 7 to 0 to refer the proposal to the statewide meeting to consider extending certain proxy hunts statewide.
Brown bears and black bears can both be found within Unit 22; however, brown bears are more common and can be found throughout the unit. While black bears are more commonly observed in the eastern portions of the unit, AD&G doesn’t have a population estimate for black bears in Unit 22. Sealing reports indicate that less than two black bears are harvested annually from the unit. Brown bear management activities in Unit 22 include monitoring harvest through sealings, certificates and administrating general season registration and drawing hunts. Additional information is gathered from observations made during surveys of other game species, village based big game harvest surveys, conversations with knowledgeable local residents and analysis of harvest data.
Beginning in 1997, a series of regulatory changes liberalized brown bear regulations in Unit 22. These actions lengthened bear seasons, established a subsistence season with no tag fee or ceiling requirement, increased the number of non-resident drawing permits, eliminated the resident tag fee and adopted increased bag limits in portions of Unit 22. This initial liberalization of brown bear regulations resulted in a 75 percent increase in average annual harvest from 54 bears per year, 1990 to 1997, to 95 bears per year between 1998 and 2012. Additional, more recent, regulatory changes have further liberalized brown bear regulations in Unit 22. These actions provided additional bear hunting opportunity. “Harvest during regulatory years 2015 and 2016 as well as a record harvest of 132 bears in 2017 suggest that the increase in opportunity resulted in a corresponding increase in the overall harvest of bears from Unit 22,” said Dunker. “This is, however, a preliminary assessment. Our ability to evaluate the effect these most recent liberalizations have had on bear harvest is confounded by a variety of factors that influence harvest and the department currently lacks the tools with which to monitor them in the absence of this information.”
Trends in harvest over a longer period of time should be evaluated to determine the effects of the most recent liberalizations prior to the adoption of any additional regulatory changes intended to further liberalize Unit 22 brown bear regulations.
The Board of Game considered proposals modifying brown bear regulations at the meeting, including four proposals affecting the Nome area. Dunker provided additional information on historic regulations.
The board turned down a proposal, 0 “yays” to 7 “nays,” that would have allowed hunters to be able to “position” bears with snow machines. The Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee supported the proposal. The Southern Norton Sound Advisory Committee took no action.
The Board’s schedule held debate on the 13 Nome area proposals at press time. More information will be forthcoming.