Dall sheep in the Chugach State Park

Dall sheep in the Chugach State Park

This is the second in a two-part series on Dall sheep in the Chugach State Park.

The tranquility of a still and quiet September evening—and our shared enjoyment of Chugach State Park’s Williwaw Lakes area—is violently pierced when the loud crack of a rifle shot explodes through the valley where Jan Myers and I and our two dogs have set up camp for a two-night stay.

The explosive noise pulls Denali and Guido from peaceful naps, after a long day of roaming the upper reaches of Campbell Creek’s Middle Fork Valley. The dogs jump to their feet and rush up valley, barking fiercely and clearly agitated by the unseen and unexpected intrusion.

The shot upsets me too, my insides roiled not only by the rifle shot but what it implies—or by what Jan and I infer from the startling blast, which most likely came from the gun of a sheep hunter.

Earlier in the day, on a hill climb to the ridge that separates the Middle and North Fork Valleys, we had spotted a large Dall sheep ram, perched high above us. With great pleasure tinged with wonder, we watched the ram rise to its feet and step to the edge of the bare, gray cliffs, looking in our general direction.

“Wow, that’s a big animal,” Jan whispered.

“Yeah it is.”

With binoculars giving us a magnified look, it appeared the sheep was a “full curl” ram, its large, amber-colored and outward-curling horns forming a complete circle when viewed from the side.

We watched and admired the ram for a long while, quietly celebrating the big sheep’s presence and reflecting upon his life in these mountains. I wondered about the ram’s age. Researchers have determined that it takes seven to eight years for a ram to grow a full curl. Though they may live into their teens, biologists generally consider 12 to be “very old” for a wild sheep. Something about the ram, perhaps the way he moved along the cliff face, suggested to me he was an “elderly” animal. We couldn’t find any other sheep in the area, which raised the question: might an old ram, one approaching the latter stages of his life, seek seclusion from his kind?

Something else played on my mind. I made an off-hand comment to Jan about the ram seeking sanctuary from trophy hunters. I wasn’t sure whether this part of the park was open to the “sport” hunting of Dall sheep and wondered if an old, experienced ram might sense danger during this season.

The ram was several hundred yards above us and Jan asked about the distance that a hunter could shoot and kill a ram.

“I don’t know exactly,” I told her, “but I’ve heard of hunters killing sheep from 1,500 feet or more.” Once, while adventuring in the Brooks Range, I crossed paths with hunters who’d killed two rams. They told me one of the sheep had been “taken down” from 700 yards away—nearly four-tenths of a mile—a killing distance that seemed hard to imagine. Could it be true?

Eventually Jan and I left the ram and wished it well. I thought again about my distaste—revulsion, really—for trophy hunting. It seems to me an awful thing, that a person would take the life of an animal to gain a trophy.

Besides that solitary ram, Jan and I had savored the presence of wild sheep since the start of our journey to Williwaw Lakes. We’d seen a couple of dozen our first day, at least 15 our second. Most were ewes or adolescents, with at least one lamb. No mature rams until these moments.

All of that makes the rifle shot reverberate longer and harder: the presence of Dall sheep throughout our stay, our celebration of their presence, and the encounter—something of an alpine communion—with the mature ram.

Long after the rifle shot has disrupted our evening, I continue to feel unsettled and sad. I can’t be sure a large ram died today on the slopes above this valley, but I sense it’s so. And I can’t say it has ruined our trip or today’s marvelous hike and hill climb, but that loud and unmistakable “crack” has a haunting presence. And it will likely haunt my memories of this camping trip, which until this evening has been a largely idyllic adventure.

On the final morning of our backpacking trip, while surveying our surroundings at breakfast, I notice two people far up valley, carrying large packs and moving in our general direction. It strikes me they may be the sheep hunters, so I watch them with binoculars while they descend the valley on the side opposite our camp. My heart again sinks when I see that one man is carrying a rifle, while the other has a curled set of sheep horns tied to his pack.

I feel some relief that they didn’t come down our side of the lake, though a part of me wishes I could learn where they’d killed the sheep. Could it have been “our” ram?

Because they’re carrying a lot of weight and are taking more rest breaks than we do, we eventually catch up to the hunters. Jan has asked me not to question them, worried that any interaction “won’t go well.” But I’ve decided to put my own dismay aside and have a civil conversation. And we do.

The men tell me that they killed the ram on the ridge that separates the Middle Fork from Ship Creek Valley; in other words, right on the boundary of an open area. All three forks of Campbell Creek are closed to sheep hunting, it turns out (something I hadn’t known), but it’s allowed throughout much of the Ship Creek drainage.

The pair got close to the ram, within 300 yards they figured, and took a single, killing shot “around 6 o’clock”—which matched the time we heard the booming “crack.” They agreed their position on the ridge made it likely we heard their rifle shot.

In a way it’s ironic that they took their shot along a narrow stretch of terrain—right along the ridgeline—where it could be heard at Williwaw Lakes, on the same day we had our memorable meeting with the ram.

Though I feel sadness for the sheep they’ve killed, and frustration that the state allows late-summer sheep hunting so close to a place that’s popular with hikers, mountain runners, backpackers, and wildlife watchers (the sheep-hunting season begins on Aug. 10), I also am relieved the hunters didn’t kill the ram whose company we’d shared.

Our conversation helps, but the violent blast of the previous night continues to reverberate inside me as we continue along the trail.

The experiences that I’ve just described occurred in September 2019. I’ve figured I would eventually write about what happened, but I’ve also recently learned more about Dall sheep hunting in Chugach State Park and I’ll share some of that here.

It will come as no surprise that “sport hunters” have targeted Dall sheep in the western Chugach Mountains for many decades, long before the park was established. The hunts occur within Game Management Unit 14C, which encompasses more than Chugach State Park, but they are centered in the park.

Since at least the 1970s, the hunt has focused on mature rams, though for a period of time, when the sheep population was exceptionally high, hunters could also kill ewes (and it appears that some years only ewes could be taken). Dave Battle, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game involved in managing wildlife populations within the Anchorage area and other parts of 14C, notes that “Ewe tags haven’t been issued for years. All rifle hunts are for full curl rams only, and bowhunts are for any ram.”

Since the late 1970s, 14C sheep numbers have ranged from less than 1,000 sheep to more than 2,000, with peak numbers in the 1990s. As their population grew, state wildlife biologists and managers became concerned that the sheep would “overgraze” their range, so they increased harvest numbers (and expanded the hunt to include ewes). The population nevertheless “dropped precipitously” in the early 2000s, Battle reports, “before stabilizing again around the year 2007.”

Given the potential for such population crashes, Battles notes, “We don’t necessarily want a tremendous number of sheep on this landscape.” He further adds, “There has been a bit of research on sheep in 14C in recent years, and one thing that has come out of that is that our sheep are not in very good body condition compared to sheep in other parts of the state. They’re carrying almost no fat reserves. That, combined with the way numbers dropped off so dramatically in the early 2000s suggest that they may indeed have damaged their habitat.”

Still Battle and other wildlife biologists admit, “Very little is known about the habitat and forage quality for sheep in Unit 14C. Considering the wide fluctuations in sheep numbers . . . this represents a significant knowledge gap.”

The department conducts aerial surveys to get minimum counts of the Chugach sheep population. For several years in the 2010s those counts numbered just over 1,000 sheep; the count in 2019 was 1,208 sheep and this year’s will be around 1,300 animals (the 2021 survey was completed only recently and final numbers aren’t yet tabulated).

The large majority of sheep are “ewe-like” sheep, which includes ewes and one-year-olds, including males, which are nearly impossible at that age to distinguish from ewes. The 2019 count (none was conducted in 2020) included 712 “ewe likes,” 168 lambs, 264 rams with less than a full curl and 27 full-curl rams (plus 12 sheep that were “unclassified).

Harvest—that is, kill—numbers for the past five years range from 20 to 26 sheep, all of them rams and most of them full-curl males.

There is lots more to digest, but that will have to do for now, except for a brief discussion of season dates, which are Aug. 10 to Sept. 20 for rifle hunters (later for bow hunters), I asked Dave Battle why the sheep-hunting season has to start so early in August, when the park is heavily used by all sorts of non-hunters; He replied that “the setting of hunting seasons in the park predates me . . . [but] my guess is that sheep hunting inherently minimizes user group conflicts, so was not thought to be an issue. Sheep hunters, for the most part, go way back in, far off the beaten path, try to get away from everyone as much as they can . . .

“I don’t recall ever hearing of a conflict between a sheep hunter and a nonconsumptive user in the park. I’m sure it has happened occasionally, and maybe it just wasn’t reported to me, but I have to think it’s pretty rare.”

I suppose it depends on how you define “conflict,” but I’d say sheep hunting certainly compromised our experience in the park on that September backpacking trip and, for a while at least, caused considerable turmoil for two people and two dogs who’d been relishing the peace and solitude of a wild and beautiful place.

I don’t expect regulations to change anytime soon, but I continue to wonder why sheep hunting, if allowed in Chugach State Park, couldn’t start later in the fall like other hunts do, particularly in easily accessible places that attract considerable non-hunting recreation, the Falls Creek drainage being a prime example.

As Dave Battle noted in his communication with me, one of the bow hunts for sheep runs from Oct. 1-10. If that works for bow hunters, why not those using rifles? Especially considering that the crack of a rifle shot can be much more disruptive—and alarming—to others in the area.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com

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