Sheep Wars Part I

Steve and his brother were busy setting up their base camp after flying into the Brooks Range in northern Alaska to hunt Dall sheep. They were pumped. Months of preparation had brought them to this spot. As they sorted their gear for the arduous task ahead, they weren’t too surprised to see a large fellow coming over from a guide’s base camp, which had been set up at the airstrip. People are usually few and far between in that country, so cordial visits are normal when running into others. The tone of the situation quickly changed, however, when the guide started talking.

“You guys need to stay out of this canyon. There’s some rams up there that we’re saving for clients,” he said, pointing back toward a drainage to the west.

As long as people have been hunting in Alaska, there have been conflicts between hunters and guides. But with increasing regularity, the tension between guides and resident hunters (and even between outfitters themselves) has reached the boiling point. Something needs to change–and soon.

To many, sheep hunting is the pinnacle of the Alaskan experience. These mountains have drawn hunters from all over the world for decades, to try their strength, endurance and luck in the hopes of coming away with a trophy ram. Guides are what make this possible for many people. The sheer vastness, danger and challenge of hunting Dall sheep calls for the experience of a seasoned veteran. By law, non-residents are required to use the services of a registered guide or a resident of second-degree kin. This is intended to provide a level of safety and ensure good game management. It also gives hunters the best shot at coming away with the trophy of a lifetime. Unfortunately, as long as there have been guides, there have been less-than-satisfactory operations, some of which have been illegal. There are plenty of honest, experienced and reputable guides out there, but there are also a lot that could be considered sub-par at best.

With so many differing opinions and finger-pointing, it can be pretty hard to know what’s really going on. One of the most common complaints from residents–and even from some guides–is that there are just too many guides and outfitters. Realizing that this is a pretty tall allegation, I set out in search of some solid numbers to see if I could shed some light on the situation.


Tony Hollis, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and an avid sheep hunter, was able to help me with a few of these. The numbers vary slightly from year to year, but a 10-year sampling from 2000-2009 showed that non-resident hunters made up 19.5% of hunters and killed 39.5% of the rams taken. They averaged a 63.5% success rate, as opposed to residents, who posted only 23.8% success. The non-resident success rate is understandably higher because they are hunting with guides, but their percentage of the total harvest is significantly higher than just about any other state’s non-resident/resident percentages, especially for sheep species. In Alaska, the majority of sheep country that isn’t locked up by the feds offers public access. Non-residents must hunt with a guide, but they can purchase sheep tags over the counter. And with no guide exclusivity on state land, it is basically a free-for-all.

According to Hollis and Sgt. Scott Quist of the AK Wildlife Troopers, in areas such as the Wood River in the Alaska Range, you’ll sometimes get 10 to 15 guides hunting the same river drainage. This enormous amount of pressure results in a much higher percentage of illegal rams being taken by both residents and guides. In these areas, most rams are killed as soon as they are even borderline legal. A legal ram in most areas is defined as having at least one horn that is full-curl (as defined in Alaska’s hunting regulations), is eight years old or has both horn tips broken off.

With this lack of regulation, conflicts and bullying between guides and residents is rampant. Most of these encounters don’t result in any action by the law. Trooper Quist says that the majority of conflicts involving supposed unlawful behavior are impossible to prove. However, I and nearly every other serious resident sheep hunter I know have had bad experiences with these characters. “There are some really good guides out there,” Hollis says, “but there are some bad ones as well.” As a wildlife biologist who conducts surveys and spends plenty of time in the field, he has a firsthand look at what goes on. He has no shortage of stories of guides bullying residents and sabotaging other guides’ operations. This free-for-all drives many outfitters purely for the money. They can legally kill as many rams as they can find, then move on to another area. This gives many guides a vacuum-cleaner mentality and makes them act like they own every sheep on the mountain. It also provides no motivation to sustain an area, and trophy quality really goes in the toilet.

Another controversial issue is outfitters that are non-residents themselves. Hunters that are non-residents are required to use the services of a guide for sheep, yet non-residents are allowed to be guides and assistant guides themselves. I have yet to get a logical explanation for that one. According to information from the Alaska Department of Commerce, almost 27% of the 1551 guides (assistant, registered and master) licensed in Alaska are non-residents. From what Hollis has seen come in to the Fairbanks Fish and Game office, most of the sub-legal rams from non-residents are killed under the supervision of an assistant guide that is from out of state and/or inexperienced.

According to Hollis, around 10% of the rams brought in for sealing are illegal and must be confiscated. He says that, from what he has seen come into the Fairbanks office, the number of illegal rams taken by residents and non-residents is pretty much the same. He also says that nearly every time a non-resident brings in an illegal ram to get sealed, the guide is not present. Often, the non-resident hunter does not even realize the sheep is sub-legal.

“It’s really heartbreaking to have to tell them their ram isn’t legal,” Hollis says. “This year, I had three guys come in, two of them with really nice rams, but the third was illegal. He had no idea, and they were literally on their way to the airport. You could tell the guy just wanted to cry.” In most cases the guide is only fined for “aiding,” while the unknowing client faces the brunt of the fine. The guide has already been paid by his client at this point and often doesn’t face many (if any) serious consequences. This seems absolutely wrong to me. The guide is depended upon to be able to accurately judge the legality of sheep every time.

What most of the issues seem to boil down to is money. A lot of guides make a significant part of their living guiding hunters and do it the right way, but many let the money overcome ethics. In fact, the only areas in Alaska that the WSF (Wild Sheep Foundation) recommends to hunt are the federally controlled areas. These areas have exclusive use and close quota management. Other than these better managed areas, the WSF recommends hunts in Canada, which are much better managed and in low-pressure areas. The justification is debatable, but fears are brewing among serious resident sheep hunters that if something isn’t done, we’ll lose this privilege and all hunts will go to draw. Most of the heavily hunted and guided Chugach Range went to draw-only beginning in the 2008 season, which pushed hunters to other areas.

Is this a hopeless situation? No, but things need to change. As is too often the case in situations like this, the deep pockets are the ones that stack the deck, and as long as money is the priority, the situation will only worsen. Keep your eyes peeled for some of the possible solutions in my next blog.

Photo: sheilapic76