The borough’s heliski map committee is awaiting industry data before settling on a recommendation that could limit heliski activity in the Takhinsha mountain range after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the region to mountain goat hunting due to conservation concerns. Committee members and the industry representative sparred over which data the industry would provide.

Fish and Game closed areas in the Takhinsha mountains to hunting after it observed 54% fewer goats were seen during an aerial survey in July compared to one in 2016 between the Canadian border and Garrison Glacier. Agency officials also closed areas between the Kicking Horse River and Davidson Glacier after noting a 40% decline in the goat population.

Lynn Canal Conservation vice president Eric Holle asked the committee to close the same areas to heliskiing due to research that shows helicopter disturbance can impact goat reproduction and survival if helicopters come within a range of 1,500 meters of occupied or suspected nursery group or crucial winter range habitats.

Industry representative and Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures’ Erin Bills said that there was a lack of evidence that local heliski operations impacted mountain goats to justify closing the areas.

Bills said SEABA operated for two and a half weeks this winter due to COVID-19 shutdowns and said higher than average snowfall and associated avalanches was a likely cause of goat population decline.

“I don’t see the data that justifies this type of change that would hamstring the industry,” Bills said. “Are we just trying to close down the heliski industry without seeing legitimate scientific proof? I’m coming up short with why we would want to make this change to the map.”

Holle said he wasn’t blaming the industry for the population decline.

“We are not saying that the decrease in goat populations that’s cited by Fish and Game is caused by heliskiing,” Holle said. “We’re saying it doesn’t make any sense to further stress that population when it’s suffered an approximately 50 percent loss.”

Holle also questioned Bills as to why the industry wouldn’t provide the borough with logs of heliski flight paths, data he said the committee could use to refine the map without closing the whole area.

“It’s important to have the track logs so we see the areas that are being used and not being used,” Holle said. “I’m curious why they have not been provided.”

A Fish and Game study tracked mountain goats using GPS collars and used more than 190,000 location data points to develop habitat models. The models are site specific. Each range has a customized habitat model based on the wintering strategies of mountain goats using that area. In the Takhinsha range, there’s mountain goats that are typically wintering at tree line and also at low elevation, Fish and Game researcher Kevin White said.

At a map committee meeting in January, White said flight path data would help decision makers create better and more refined maps. “In the absence of any of that kind of detailed information about where helicopter skiing is occurring, it limits our ability to understand how the wildlife populations are responding to that,” White said at a previous meeting.

The Chugach National Forest Management Plan requires aircraft to maintain a 1,500-foot vertical distance from all observed mountain goats, and operators provide land managers flight path data, Chugach National Forest public affairs specialist Mona Spargo told the CVN this week.

“Heliski permit operators do share flight path information to help us monitor impacts to wildlife and other recreation users,” Spargo said. “They also share wildlife observations.”

Bills said the industry was only willing to provide drop-off and pickup site data, saying that other flight paths are less impactful to goats and that it was unrealistic for operators to provide complete track log data by the end of the month.

“I am proposing we provide you with pickup zone and landing zone data,” Bills said. “It is unreasonable to give you the run data at that point considering the time crunch…the heli industry has been extremely stressed due to COVID-19, the early shut down, that’s the only reason why you haven’t seen the data set from SEABA.”

heliski operators provide track log data to the borough on an annual basis. Last month the borough reported that SEABA had “significant activity” on Bureau of Land Management and Glacier Bay National Park land. SEABA is now being investigated, according to the park’s superintendent.

During public comment, Steve Fossman said the burden of proof has always been on the state and that the industry routinely questions the scientific validity of Fish and Game’s studies. He asked the committee to push the industry to provide all the data.

“Just be transparent and do a good job,” Fossman said. “The local people that hunt the species and like to get up there are concerned and it’s not helping anybody to try and pull the wool over everything. I’d like to see the next committee meeting with some flight data and have the committee do the work on their end.”

Kip Kermoian echoed Fossman’s call for complete track log data.

“If industry is concerned about the goats like they say they are, let’s see them provide the track logs. I am very familiar with track logs. They’re extremely easy to download,” Kermoian said. “It’s not a mystery. To say they don’t have time…it doesn’t add up.”

Committee members Derek Poinsette and Thom Ely said they have repeatedly asked the industry for such data, but that operators have so far declined to provide it.

“We have asked the industry to do that. I would say that if what is provided in pickup and drop off (data) does not seem satisfactory, then that could derail the process and potentially this committee would suggest the entire area would be shut down,” Poinsette said.

Alaska Heliskiing owner Sean Brownell told the CVN that if the areas in question were closed to heliskiing it would be devastating to the industry. “The only way that it could work out is if they gave us some other land to make up for it, to give us other lands for skiing if they were going to take away such a large piece,” Brownell said.

He said he’s willing to provide data to the committee. “It’s basically just getting the information from our heli provider to pass along.”

A Mountain Guides owner Sean Gaffney did not respond to questions by press time.