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Southcentral Alaska 2013 Fall Hunting Forecast
Our area biologists offer advice about hunting
Clouds gathered over the Chugach Mountains as I set out with a hunting partner on the two-day hike into our Dall sheep hunting base camp. The skies grew darker as we traversed the upended country of rocky ridgelines and high cirques until late on the second day when we reached camp in an alpine valley. Then the winds kicked up and the weather cut loose in a downpour that drummed nonstop for two days and nights. We had nothing to do but hunker in our mountain tent and watch through the fly as the willows outside shuddered and the creek nearby swelled and turned muddy brown. The rain came down in sheets.
We’d entered the mountains a few days prior to sheep hunting season intending to prepare by scouting likely ridges for legal rams. Unfortunately, the storm (we discovered later that it was a rare, particularly severe event related to a weakened, off-course Pacific typhoon) made scouting impossible. Finally, on the eve of the season opener, the incessant rains eased and, by dawn, stopped altogether. Stepping outside that morning, we found the mountains enshrouded by fog; visibility was limited to 50 feet. Climbing into the crags would be difficult in those conditions, and dangerous. Spotting sheep would be all but impossible.
A recent conversation with Anchorage-based wildlife biologist Tom Lohuis, currently conducting Dall sheep research in Game Management Units 13 and 14, brought that long-ago hunt to mind. “Remember,” Lohuis replied when asked his thoughts about the upcoming 2013 Southcentral Alaska Dall sheep hunting season, “overall sheep hunting success will be dictated by weather.”
That’s an excellent point, and one to remember when considering hunting prospects this fall for any big-game species. Unusually wet weather throughout Southcentral Alaska last fall kept many hunters out of the field and reduced overall success for those hunting moose, caribou and Dall sheep. A cool, dry fall in 2013 would encourage hunters to step outdoors and spend more time seeking and harvesting game.
Two other elements can also tip the scales in a hunter’s favor: Preparation and luck. Consistently successful hunters, the alleged 10 percent said to regularly take 90 percent of the game, are those who prepare thoroughly to maximize their odds of success. These hunters sow their own “good luck” by studying the game they pursue, scouting the country to be hunted, owning quality equipment, and spending adequate time in the field.
Preparation and luck played enormous roles in my wet, foggy, long-ago Chugach Mountains Dall sheep hunt. I’d readied all summer by exercising regularly; using maps and scouting trips to explore the area I would be hunting; interviewing the area wildlife biologist at the time – a kind and knowledgeable fellow named Dave Harkness – about the region’s rams and where I might find them; and finally, but importantly, spared no expense to make certain I had top-quality gear including footwear, raingear, rifle, scope and backpack.
Back in the Chugach Range on that sheep hunting opener, stuck in pea-soup fog after days of torrential rain, it seemed my training and best-laid plans would be for naught. But I was much younger then, determined, and on the verge of learning the value of a wildcard called good luck. Climbing slowly and with care to prevent stepping into thin air off an unseen cliff or crevasse, I made my way up the mountainside behind camp. The ascent was long, steep and arduous, with little to see but boulders and bluffs lurking immediately around me in the fog.
When I finally reached the ridgeline, though, a strange thing happened: From out of nowhere, a light breeze stirred and the fog around me began to whirl and lift. I was hot from the climb, so the cooling wind felt good. I’d paused for a moment when a fresh gust pushed away the fog out front. For a moment, visibility increased to perhaps 100 yards and I was shocked when a white apparition materialized suddenly in the foggy soup. Bedded down some 75 yards in front of me was a lone, full-curl ram.
I was so stunned that I actually missed the first shot, splattering an outcropping of rocks just over the ram’s shoulder. In a heartbeat, the ram leapt up and began to dash down a ravine. I made the second shot count and, even as I punched my harvest ticket a few minutes later, the fog settled back down for the rest of the day.
Certainly some degree of unforeseen luck plays a role in most successful big game hunts, but the best hunters learn never to depend upon it. Instead, they plan ahead and enter the field prepared to turn the odds in their favor. Perhaps the biggest step in planning a hunt is figuring out where lie your best odds of success for any particular big game species. For Southcentral hunters, I’ve checked in with some of our area wildlife biologists – the resident experts – who have offered observations about game in their regions and some ideas about what hunters can expect from some of the general season hunts this fall.
2013 Outlook: Moose
Matanuska – Susitna Valleys: “Better than last year”
Palmer wildlife biologist Tim Peltier cuts to the chase when asked how he expects moose hunters might fare in his region this fall: “In general, I expect that moose hunting in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys will be better than last year,” Peltier says, “assuming that it is not as wet this year as last.”
Last season’s unusually wet autumn dampened moose hunters’ enthusiasm and played a role in 2012’s below-average harvests, Peltier said. Simply put, fewer hunters reported stepping out for moose in the hills and forests of Valley game management subunits 14A, 14B, and 16A. Hunter participation and success were further reduced because the region’s popular antlerless moose hunts were cancelled out of concern that too many animals had perished in the deep winter snows of 2011-2012.
The good news for 2013 is that subsequent counts indicate area moose fared better than first feared during that difficult winter. Numbers are healthy in many subunits and the drawing-permit antlerless hunts are back on for this fall.
“Overall, hunter success rates in the Valley have been running between 13 percent and 16 percent,” Peltier says, “with the exception of Game Management Unit 16B, where the success rate has been about 22 percent when the season is open.”
Peltier explains that the general-harvest moose season in subunit 16B was closed during four of the 10 years between 2001 and 2011. Recent surveys have indicated solid bull-to-cow ratios in the subunit and Peltier does not anticipate a general season closure will be needed there in the foreseeable future.
Again, Valley moose hunters should not be discouraged by last year’s lower harvests. Peltier says moose and moose hunting opportunities are present – particularly with the antlerless draw hunts back in place. He adds that Valley hunters can increase their odds of success by “getting away from the competition, maximizing the amount of time spent in the field, and being vigilant during the dawn and dusk when moose are most active.”
Further, if the warm, sunny summer of 2013 was any indication, a more pleasant and productive hunting season may be coming.
“Should the weather cooperate with an early, cool, dry fall,” Peltier says, “moose hunting should be pretty good throughout the Valley.”
Nelchina and Copper Basins: Good prospects
Situated between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Game Management Unit 13 covers 23,367 square miles, encompassing the Copper River basin and a significant portion of lands immediately surrounding it. The region is widely known as home ground to the Nelchina caribou herd, though for hunters seeking winter meat in quantity, moose are also considered primary game. The unit’s expanses of taiga, tundra, mountains and rolling hills provide the ingredients needed to yield and sustain healthy moose populations.
Moose hunting should be good in Unit 13 this fall, says Becky Schwanke, Glennallen area wildlife biologist. Schwanke believes that because last fall’s poor weather kept area harvests below average more legal animals should be available for hunters this year.
“We had a late spring this year, but moose survival appeared to be good,” Schwanke says, “hunters should expect a good season.”
Moose numbers are up in subunits 13A, 13B, 13C and 13E, and a large network of ATV trails provides easy access to all but the most remote corners of these areas. Schwanke notes that the trails also make hunting pressure in these subunits quite high.
Hunters looking for more elbow room might consider subunit 13D on the south side of the Glenn Highway. “Subunit 13D continues to have a stable low moose density,” says Schwanke, “but few ATV trails exist and most hunting is concentrated near the highway system and fly-in-accessible locations.”
Get away from the road and a hunter here has a better chance of finding space to hunt on his or her own terms.
Kenai Peninsula: Options Increase
Kenai Peninsula moose numbers are generally stable, but well below historic highs. This is largely because forests in many areas are maturing and crowding out important “browse” – shrubs and young successional-growth trees that moose depend upon for food. On the bright side, says Soldotna Area Biologist Jeff Selinger, recent hard winters seem to have had less impact on moose in Game Management Units 7 and 15 than on populations farther north.
“I think moose hunting on the Peninsula is going to be a little better this year” says Selinger. Part of the reason for this is because more legal bulls will be available this season, thanks to a ruling by the Board of Game last spring. In addition to bulls with antler spreads of 50 inches or greater and/or bulls with four or more brow tines on at least one antler, hunters this fall will be allowed to take “spike bulls” – yearling animals that display a spike antler on at least one side.
“With respect to the 50-inch or four brow-tine animals, hunter success should be about same as last year,” Selinger says.
During the 2012 moose hunting season, 788 hunters in the Game Management Unit 15 general season hunts harvested 37 of the large, legal bulls. That’s a success ratio of 4.7 percent. In Game Management Unit 7, 98 hunters managed to take only two of the big bulls last fall for a hunter success ratio of 2 percent. Selinger expects moose hunting to improve by 2014 to 2015 as animals recruited as yearling bulls begin to appear in the large legal-size antler class.
“Subunit 15C has our best moose populations right now,” Selinger says. He attributes the higher moose densities there to the subunit’s relatively recent wildfire history. Roughly 100,000 acres have burned in the subunit over the past 10 to 15 years.
Currently, the department is working with federal and private land owners to develop plans to improve the region’s moose habitat. Options for future habitat reclamation efforts could include prescribed burns and mechanical clearing of mature forest areas.
2013 Outlook: Caribou
Nelchina Herd: Tough spring means moderate harvest
In the way that caribou herd populations everywhere can rise and fall rapidly in response to influences such as forage availability, presence of parasites and disease, weather events, and predation among others, the Nelchina caribou herd over the last half-century has seen some peaks and valleys. In recent years, the herd’s numbers have been strong, at times even exceeding biologists’ population objective level of 35,000 to 40,000 animals. Due to the late spring of 2013, that dynamic may be experiencing a sudden shift.
Area Biologist Schwanke explains that, because the Nelchina herd had exceeded population objective levels, last year’s harvest goal was raised. Even so, the harvest fell shy of the quota last year, but 2013’s late spring more than made up for it.
“Caribou reached the calving grounds very late this spring due to late-season winter storms and to flooding rivers that followed,” Schwanke says. “Overall mortality was high, the late migration being particularly hard on young caribou.”
The herd’s bull-to-cow ratio has been above objectives in recent years which is allowing for a few extra bulls to be taken despite the tough winter. As a result, the harvest quota this year will remain moderate at 2,500, Schwanke says. A recently issued emergency order limits this season’s subsistence hunts for caribou of either sex to one day – August 10 – before going to a bulls-only harvest for the remainder of the season. Drawing hunts will open for bulls-only on August 20.
Schwanke expects the harvest quota to be reached sometime before the end of the season, at which time all state hunts for Nelchina caribou will be closed by emergency order. “We can’t urge the public enough,” she says, “call the Nelchina hotline at 267-2304 for information prior to hunting this season.”
2013 Outlook: Dall Sheep
Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains: Warm weather sends rams high
Dall sheep hunting in the mountains surrounding the Matanuska and Susitna valleys includes a draw hunt in the Chugach portion of subunit 14A and a general season hunt in the Talkeetna Mountains of 14A and 14B. A general hunt is also open in the Alaska Range along the western edge of subunit 16B.
Normally, the overall success rate for sheep hunters in the Talkeetna Mountains of subunits 14A and14B is about 21 percent, according to Palmer wildlife biologist Peltier. The success rate in subunit 16B is 26 percent, he says, adding that the Alaska Range is remote and hunting pressure there is relatively light. That’s worth considering for those willing to fly into the backcountry for their sheep.
The wet weather and socked-in conditions of fall 2012 were especially hard on Dall sheep hunters in this region, according to Peltier. “Our harvest was below the quota,” he says.
Hardcore Dall sheep hunters, however, will bear in mind that last year’s weather – and the below-average sheep harvest it helped precipitate – is history. For perspective on fall sheep hunting in 2013, biologist Tom Lohuis, recently in from flying surveys in the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains, shares more current observations.
“Our surveys in the Chugach indicate that a reasonable number mature rams are present,” Lohuis reports, “but the animals appear widely distributed at lower densities than usual.”
He adds that if this summer’s warm, dry weather extends into hunting season, sheep hunters may want to make more certain than ever that they’re in top physical condition.
“The bulk of the sheep being seen are at or above the 7,000-foot level, likely because of heat,” says Lohuis.
He suggests hunters consider focusing their efforts around glaciers where the animals might gather to find cooler temperatures.
That’s the short-term report. The big picture suggests that the hard winter of 2011-2012 and a particularly late spring in 2013 may have long-term ripple effects on area Dall sheep.
“In the Chugach, the last two winters were tough on collared animals,” Lohuis says. These are previously captured sheep that Lohuis tracks and studies over time. “We’ve seen some increased mortality as a result of heavy snowfall in 2011-2012, and as a result of the late, cold spring of 2013.”
Further, deep snows and the late spring may have led to more sheep dying in avalanches while this summer’s late green-up may have resulted in additional nutritional stress to animals already in poor body condition leading to more deaths. This may be especially evident in older animals – including the trophy rams hunters seek.
“As always, be sure of the hunting regulations for the area you’re hunting in,” Lohuis says. “Take extra time to make sure you’re looking at a mature full-curl ram. Those animals in the 5- to 7-year age class – the sublegal rams – will likely be increasingly important for breeding stock over the next several years.”
2013 Outlook: Deer
Prince William Sound and Kodiak
Deer populations in Game Management Units 6 and 8, including Prince William Sound, the Gulf Coast and Kodiak Island, were struck hard by the devastatingly deep snows of winter 2011-2012. When the snowpack finally retreated, deer mortality observed in parts of Prince William Sound was as high as 60 percent, while in Kodiak the winter kill ranged from 30 percent to close to 70 percent.
That’s the bad news. The good news, says Cordova Area Biologist Charlotte Westing, is that Alaska deer populations tend to rebound rapidly under favorable weather conditions. Two or three average or relatively easy winters of lighter snowfall would benefit deer greatly. For now, though, the question is: What should hunters expect this fall?
Westing conducted exhaustive surveys this spring and summer in the Prince William Sound region and was not surprised to discover fewer deer available for the 2013 deer hunting season.
“This summer’s transects show the overall lowest data point since we started collecting information in the late 1980s,” Westing says. In other words, hunters in Game Management Unit 6 – including such popular and normally productive destinations as Hawkins, Hinchinbrook, and Montague islands, among others – will need to work much harder than usual to find deer.
Westing notes that when deep snows concentrate deer on beaches, hunting can slow population recoveries. To prevent this and help rebuild the population more efficiently, the 2013 hunting season may be shortened by emergency order.
“A similar strategy was implemented last year,” Westing says, explaining that “Deer are especially vulnerable when they move down to beaches after first significant snowfall.”
“Last year many locals did not hunt deer to give the population a break and many may make the same choice this season,” she adds, a sacrifice understandable to any conservation-minded hunter.
Hunters on Kodiak and surrounding islands in Game Management Unit 8 will also need to work harder for their deer this fall, for the same reasons.
Nonetheless, deer remain – if at lower than normal densities – in the usual dark, mossy places and hunters willing to step out and put in the extra time and effort will find them. Of course, a little luck never hurts, either.
Kenai Peninsula Brown Bear: Road System Registration Opportunity
Soldotna Area Biologist Jeff Selinger reminds hunters that a brown bear hunting opportunity is being offered this season on the Kenai Peninsula.
“We’re going to open brown bear to a registration hunt starting on September 1, this year,” Selinger says.
The hunt, approved by the Board of Game at its meeting in Soldotna late last winter, provides hunters interested in harvesting a brown bear an opportunity for a road system-based hunt.
Participants in the last season’s peninsula brown bear registration hunt harvested 27 bears in Game Management Units 7 and 15 despite enduring frequent rains, high waters and a hunting season that was halted temporarily by emergency order.
An unlimited number of permits are scheduled to be available beginning August 15 in Palmer, Anchorage Soldotna, Homer and online
Ken Marsh is a writer and avid outdoorsman working with the Division of Wildlife Conservation in Anchorage
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