Pilot Mountain sheep need protection

Pilot Mountain sheep need protection Open letter from the Laberge Renewable Resources Council re Environment Minister Elaine Taylor's rejection of two proposed hunting regulation changes: In 2007-08 the Laberge Renewable Resources Council, in co-opera

Open letter from the Laberge Renewable Resources Council re Environment Minister Elaine Taylor’s rejection of two proposed hunting regulation changes:

In 2007-08 the Laberge Renewable Resources Council, in co-operation with the wildlife branch of Yukon government and the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, undertook a study on Pilot Mountain to determine the impacts of the ever-increasing use of ATVs on the local sheep population and their habitat.

The study consisted of inspection of government records, aerial surveys, on-the-ground monitoring and the interviewing of some 45 local residents.

The results of the study were summarized in two reports, one dealing with the status of the sheep population and the other with the information generated during a workshop and the interviewing of local residents.

For interested readers, the reports are available through the Laberge Renewable Resources Council.

The study raised a number of concerns and to address and mitigate these concerns the Laberge Renewable Resources Council submitted two regulation changes:

a) Stop hunting the sheep population in the Miners Range for two years, to allow it to recover and re-establish a more natural sex ratio of more than 40 rams per 100 nursery sheep.

b) After the two-year moratorium, manage this population through a permit system, as is done in part of Game Management Zone 7 that would allow about two per cent (three rams) of the population to be taken per year.

2) Stop the use of ATVs in the alpine areas of the Miners Range for the purpose of hunting.

These proposals were supported by Ta’an Kwach’an, the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board, the Yukon Conservation Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society and numerous Yukon residents.

The renewable resource council was not directly informed about the fate of these proposals, but found out about them through reports in the local papers and correspondence between Taylor and the Fish and Wildlife Management Board.

Taylor rejected both proposals on rather questionable grounds.

We would like to briefly summarize our reasons for having submitted these proposals.

In our assessment of the status of the herd and the effectiveness of its management, we have relied on the government’s sheep management guidelines, which were published about a dozen years ago.

They stipulate how sheep will be managed in the Yukon.

The Pilot Mountain sheep herd is one of the better-known populations in the Yukon, with about a dozen aerial surveys carried out over the past 30 years. Its current size is estimated at about 170 head.

A concern is the low number of rams, which has been evident for many years.

The long-term average has been 32.8 rams per 100 nursery sheep, and in 2007 it was only 27.4.

The Yukon sheep management guidelines stipulate this ratio should not fall below 40 per cent.

These guidelines also stipulate that some rams should not be shot, but should be allowed to reach an old age to pass on their genetic makeup and experience to future generations.

Wild sheep have a well-established society in which the oldest animals are the leaders. With age comes wisdom, knowledge and experience. Younger animals learn from older ones how to survive. From them they learn the location of habitat components (winter range, summer range, lambing sites, migration trails and mineral licks), the tactics used to avoid predators and humans, and from their leadership they benefit when crossing areas of deep snow and digging feeding craters.

Lack of old rams has been a common complaint of hunters using Pilot Mountain.

To assure a desired sex ratio and age structure in a herd the guidelines state that hunting should not exceed four per cent of the nonlamb population and should be as low as two per cent if we want a population to grow or recover.

During the decade 1989 to 1998, 32 per cent of the rams shot were 10 years old and older; during the recent decade this percentage has dropped to 24 per cent.

The harvest rate has averaged 3.2 per cent over the past 30 years, but was as high as 4.7 per cent during the 1989-1998 decade, when many of the old rams were removed from the population and hunting pressure was very high.

During that decade, ATV-supported hunting became popular and increased quickly.

Our assessment that a harvest rate of four per cent is too high is supported by data from the Ruby Range herd east of Kluane Lake.

From 1974 to 1990, that herd was hunted lightly at a rate of 1.7 per cent and it maintained a ram to nursery sheep ratio of about 64 per cent. Hunting increased during the ‘90s, and between 1992 and 1996 had a rate of 3.4 per cent. Hunting at that rate decreased the ram to nursery sheep ratio to 52 per cent.

In summary, three provisions of the government’s sheep management guidelines were not followed: the harvest rate was too high, the sex ratio too distorted and few rams reached old age.

This population is very vulnerable to excessive harvest, because the horn growth of rams is good.

Many rams reach full-curl horn growth before reaching the legal age of eight years, some as early as six years. This characteristic has resulted in 42.1 per cent of the rams shot being less than eight years old.

This has serious genetic implications.

Rams reach prime breeding age at about eight years. We therefore remove from the population the rams with the best horn growth before they have much opportunity to pass on their genetic makeup to offspring.

Our proposal to impose a two-year moratorium on hunting was meant to allow the male component of the population to recover, a sex ratio of better than 40 per cent to come into being, and an adequate number of rams to reach old age.

The government rejected this plea and takes the position that the skewed sex ratio is the result of fluctuating lamb crops.

We don’t agree with that explanation.

Fluctuating lamb crops are characteristic for all sheep populations, but they have little influence on the sex ratio, since lambs are born with a 50:50 sex ratio.

In addition, males have a higher natural mortality than females. Therefore, a good addition of rams into the legal age class, seven to eight years after a good lamb crop, is accompanied by an even better influx of females and any changes in the ratio of rams to nursery sheep is minimal.

Just as there are years with good lamb production, there are years with poor production, resulting in poor or no ram recruitment into the legal age class seven or eight years down the road.

For long-term management purposes, it is therefore prudent to use average conditions.

To justify their position, the Yukon government makes the following claim in the Yukon News (May 27): “The years 2000 and 2001 yielded particularly poor lamb crops on Pilot Mountain, with estimates of fewer than 20 lambs being born during those years. But they are followed by surging lamb numbers for the next five years, with more than 40 lambs born in 2006.”

We have serious problems with this statement, because we don’t know where these numbers come from.

According to our information, 34 lambs were born in 2000, but we are not aware of any surveys being done in 2001.

We are also not aware of the surging lamb crops over the next five years, since no surveys were conducted during those years, including 2006 when 40 lambs supposedly had been born.

According to our information, the next survey after 2000 was done in 2007, when 26 lambs were counted.

The government rejected a two-year moratorium to allow the ram component of this population to recover, but they will institute a permit hunt, with six permits being made available.

Considering the ease of access to this sheep population only 40 kilometres from Whitehorse and a two-hour ATV trip into the alpine, and the fact that a number of hunters claim to have shot their ram in an afternoon hunt, it is not unreasonable to be worried that these six permits can result in six rams being taken.

The average annual harvest in 30 years of record taking has been four rams per year. One can ask the question, if an annual harvest of four rams got us into this predicament, how can a harvest of six rams contribute to getting us out of it?

A more precautionary approach to hunting is recommended.

We feel that a well-planned permit hunt can restore the ram numbers to an acceptable level, but it cannot restore the ram component in a qualitative sense.

Hunters will always shoot the best developed rams. We don’t blame them. That is what trophy hunting is all about.

Only a moratorium on hunting will assure that some of the best developed rams will reach old age and perpetuate their genes.

The government also rejected the proposal to stop the use of ATVs for the purpose of hunting in the alpine areas of the Miners Range.

There are three types of impacts ATVs can bring about:

1) They can disturb sheep and other wildlife, and possibly displace them out of the area or from preferred feeding areas.

2) They can cause damage to terrain and vegetation, particularly in sensitive areas such as steep slopes and sites with moist soils.

3) They can disturb other hunters and hinterland users who prefer to use Yukon’s wilderness in a traditional manner such as on foot or horseback.

All three types of impacts have been observed in the Miners Range or reported to us at the workshop or during interviews.

The Yukon government monitored human activity in the Miners Range during last year’s hunting season by installing cameras at two access routes.

They documented some 175 people with about 100 ATVs.

There are three other access routes into the area, which were not monitored.

With this level of activity, disturbance of sheep and other wildlife can’t be avoided.

We have to keep in mind that any activity that prevents sheep from doing what they usually do is disturbance.

Sheep may not run away when hunters on ATVs pass below them, but they stop feeding and watch the hunters until they are out of sight. If such encounters happen repeatedly over the course of a day, these interruptions of feeding add up to significant levels.

At the end of the hunting season, food deprivation may prevent a female from becoming fit enough to ovulate, or may even have impact on a sheep’s survival over winter.

We are not alone with our concerns about the impacts of ATVs.

There is a growing awareness in the Yukon public about the possible impacts of unregulated ATV use.

In last year’s 20/20 Vision workshop organized by the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board, a questionnaire circulated to the audience contained the following question: “Should there be controlled access and/or elevation restrictions for ATVs, to protect habitat?”

Some 86 per cent of the 150, or more, participants answered in the affirmative.

Laberge Renewable Resources Council