Asks borough to request flight path data

The Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee (ULCFGAC) Monday voted 6-2 to ask state and federal land managers to restrict heliskiing in the Takhinsha Mountains and Kicking Horse region in an effort reduce mountain goat population decline. According to protocols outlined in the Bureau of Land Management’s land use plan, it’s possible that the federal agency will intervene to some extent.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed mountain goat hunting in those areas after biologists observed 54% fewer goats during aerial surveys over three years in the Takhinsha Range and a 40% decline in areas between the Kicking Horse River and Davidson Glacier.

Much of the land where goat population is declining is BLM property. According to the BLM’s Ring of Fire Management Plan, helicopters must maintain 1,500 meters from high-use mountain goat winter habitat. In the Takhinsha Range, roughly 62 percent of high-use mountain goat habitat is open to heliskiing.

BLM communications director Lesli Ellis-Wouters said Fish and Game data is used when permitting heliskiing, as outlined in its management plan. According to the plan, different thresholds triggering permitting changes would occur if goat populations change significantly over time. If a goat population declines 20% or more over three surveys a “hard trigger” would be met under the plan.

“If (Fish and Game) data suggests that a (trigger) identified in the plan’s adaptive management has been met, the BLM would consider a variety of permitting strategies within that habitat.”

Measures may include changes to the area of allowed use, exclusion zones, restrictions in duration and or frequency and reduction in permitted landing allocations.

Fish and Game wildlife biologist and goat researcher Kevin White said his agency is in the process of meeting with BLM regarding the population decline data. The BLM has helped fund Fish and Game’s population monitoring surveys.

The advisory committee’s 6-2 vote requesting state and federal intervention, with members Stuart DeWitt and Ryan Cook opposed, comes after the borough assembly last month rejected the borough manager’s recommendation to allow the borough’s heliski map committee to continue working beyond its deadline to address the decline.

According to scientific consensus and management practices used by British Columbia along with state and federal land managers, helicopters are required to keep a minimum distance away from goats due to noise disturbance that has significant adverse effects on the animals.

Committee member Ryan Cook voted against the request for intervention. He said there’s no evidence to suggest the helicopters are causing the population decline and pointed to Fish and Game biologists’ reports that ascribe the goat population decrease to several possible factors.

“I don’t know how you can say 100 percent it’s from helicopters,” Cook said. “It could be winter kill. There’s a lot of different reasons why that population could be declining. Why are you trying to point fingers at the industry?”

Committee member Kip Kermoian said Cook’s argument, which has been stated by assembly members and others opposed to the heliski map committee’s work, mischaracterizes the committee’s request.

“No one’s pointing fingers saying, ‘Shut them down because they’re causing this issue,’” Kermoian said. “That’s not the point. We’re trying minimize pressure to a declining goat population. It’s that simple.”

Goat hunter Steve Fossman called for decision makers to be open to looking at the data and to not pit the heliski industry against environmentalists. He said while there could be many factors causing goat population decline, it doesn’t hurt to learn, by analyzing flight path data, if heliskiing has an effect.

“There doesn’t seem to be any desire (by the assembly) to look at the data,” Fossman said. “Encourage the borough to require flight data… Make logical suggestions that might help the heliski industry and management of the goat herd. The goats have no chance against the economy and the money that the heliski brings in. If that’s the way its going to be managed, you can forget about it.”

Cook and DeWitt wanted the advisory committee to send their concerns to the assembly and the tourism advisory board rather than state and federal agencies.

Advisory committee member Derek Poinsette, who also sits on the heliski map committee, said asking outside agencies to get involved is addressing concerns stated by assembly members and other stakeholders who say the Haines Borough has no business regulating the industry.

“It went to the assembly with the manager’s recommendation that we’d be allowed to continue and the assembly shut us down, basically,” Poinsette said. “This is going to entities that we’ve been told should be managing goats and heliskiing. This is addressing the concern that the borough should have nothing to do with this. Throwing them back in is not the point.”

The fish and game advisory council unanimously requested that the Haines Borough Assembly or manager ask the heliski industry to provide GPS flight path data in an effort to better understand where mountain goats are in relation to heliski runs.

The Haines Borough can make adjustments to its map every five years, according to code—a recent change from every three years based on a recent assembly decision. The heliski map committee has repeatedly asked local heliski operators for GPS location data, also required from heliski operators by state, federal and British Columbia heliski land managers, in an effort to create a local heliski map based on Fish and Game’s goat habitat models.

The BLM requires all heliski operators to track and provide landing and pick up location data, Ellis-Wouters said. “The data can be analyzed with goat population data, and over time, may help the BLM find permitting strategies that are most beneficial to both wildlife populations and heliski operators,” she said.

So far local operators have declined to provide the borough with data, although a Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures representative said the company would be willing to provide pick-up and drop-off locations, but has yet to do so beyond a few locations.

The other land in question is Alaska Department of Natural Resources property. According to the Haines State Forest management plan, DNR will consult with Fish and Game for wildlife information, especially mountain goat habitat.

“It can be expected that, as new information becomes available on sensitive wildlife resources, particularly on goat habitat, or other sensitive resources and users, changes to the boundaries of ‘Areas Allowed for Heli-skiing’ or ‘Flight Corridors’ will be appropriate in order to reflect this information,” the plan states.

Changes to flight and use areas must be approved by DNR’s Southeast Regional Land Manager, Division of Mining, Land, and Water. Request for comment from the agency went unreturned by press time.

Several goat-hunting guides attended Monday’s meeting. They advocated for Fish and Game to stop the hunting of female goats, nannies, in an effort to reduce population decline. Fish and Game biologist Carl Koch said only one goat has been hunted in the Takhinsha Mountains in the last five to six years, while the area around the Kicking Horse region has some harvest every year. One assembly member who voted last month to end the heliski map committee’s work this year said the population would return after hunting is closed.

Assembly member Gabe Thomas, who voted against letting the map committee continue at last month’s meeting and characterized its current makeup as corrupt and biased toward conservationists, told advisory committee members that the conversation was valuable and that he was open to advancing the discussion.

“I like the dialogue we’re having,” Thomas said. “I’m here. I’m listening.”

He cautioned against putting the goat population too far ahead of the winter economy. “(Heliskiing) does make a living for the Haines Borough,” he said, and warned of the decrease in sales tax revenue as a result of the pandemic.

The Advisory Committee also discussed the significant increase in bear activity but made no recommendations, deciding to continue the discussion at a future meeting. Some issues discussed included disallowing grease as a type of black bear bait because it attracted brown bears.

*This story has been updated to correct an inaccuracy. The story previously reported that the tourism advisory board recommended that the heliski map committee continue its work. Such a recommendation never occurred.