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Pilot Mountain population too good to be true

A recent Environment Department census of Dall sheep on Pilot Mountain suggests the ram population is improving. But longtime biologist Manfred Hoefs isn't buying the new numbers.

A recent Environment Department census of Dall sheep on Pilot Mountain suggests the ram population is improving.

But longtime biologist Manfred Hoefs isn’t buying the new numbers.

Last month, Environment officials did a helicopter sweep of the Pilot Mountain area to tally sheep populations.

The number of rams in the Pilot Mountain area, 50 kilometres north of Whitehorse, have been closely tracked over the past two years after numbers were found to be far below what is considered healthy.

The survey found the proportion of rams to ewes increased by 66 per cent, which Hoefs finds hard to believe.

“I’m really suspicious—the numbers can’t jump that much unless you miss counting a lot of females.”

In 2008, the proportion of rams to nursery ewes was found to be 38 to 100. This year, the number spiked to 63.

“I dispute that,” said Hoefs. “It’s not possible that (the number of rams) could double in a year. It’s just biologically not possible.”

Hoefs, who has studied Dall sheep in the Yukon for the last 40 years, suggested the department overlooked about 30 sheep in its count, enough sheep to skew the proportion of rams, making it seem like it’s higher than it is.

Missing sheep isn’t uncommon. In fact, last year it happened to him.

In 2008, Hoefs wasn’t able to count all the sheep on Pilot Mountain because of an unexpectedly late snowfall.

So, after questioning his data, he did a recount.

The concern is that hunters prize rams, and a wrong count could affect the number of rams hunted.

Hoefs sits on the Laberge Renewable Resources Council, which called for a two-year ban of ram hunting on Pilot Mountain, a moratorium supported by the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board.

Environment Minister Elaine Taylor rejected the ban, instead imposing an annual harvest limit of six rams.

Long-term studies carried out by the council over the last three decades show that rams make up only 33 per cent of the Dall sheep population on Pilot Mountain.

Rams and sheep are born with a 50:50 sex ratio. The imbalanced sex ratio on Pilot Mountain is a result of shorter lifespans for rams, but also “excessive harvesting,” said Hoefs.

Two years ago, the ram population was 27 per cent, a number far below the 40 per cent mark outlined in the government’s sheep-management guidelines.

“Our whole argument is based on the government violating their own guidelines,” said Hoefs.

It comes down to a dispute over numbers. And the government is holding fast to its numbers.

All the sheep that could be counted were accounted for, said Jean Carey, an Environment biologist who was involved in this year’s sheep count.

“I’m convinced we had a good count this time.”

The increased ram population is a result of fluctuating lamb crops, she said.


government won’t release the percentage of rams that have “full-curl” horns for fear that it may get into the hands of eager hunters looking to bag a trophy ram, said Carey.

But this number is crucial to determining how healthy a population of Dall sheep is, said Hoefs.

Older rams are important to a population because they pass along genetic makeup and experience to future generations of rams.

“You’ve got to have some really good rams to do breeding, and that’s no longer the case,” said Hoefs.

However, older rams are “the least risky harvest to a population,” according to Carey.

“I agree that (the Dall sheep) have social structures and older animals are important,” she said.

“But if you say, ‘Don’t shoot them,’ they may end up dying next year because of age.”

Rams are getting picked off earlier than eight years of age, the legal age that hunters are allowed to bag a ram, said Hoefs.

“I’m pretty sure the trophy quality of rams is not as big as they should be.”

“We’ve done our homework,” said Carey. “We want to be allowing hunting of healthy sheep populations and I think we’ve got that.”

Contact Vivian Belik at