Local conservationists push back

The Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee questioned Bureau of Land Management staff about why the federal agency isn’t restricting helicopter activity in areas experiencing mountain goat population decline.

In November 2020 the group asked BLM to restrict heliskiing in the Takhinsha Mountains and Kicking Horse region, after Alaska Department of Fish and Game aerial surveys indicated a 54% and 40% reduction in the respective regions’ population.

The advisory committee invited BLM field office manager Marnie Graham and biologist LeAnn McMurphy to discuss BLM’s adaptive management plan for permitting heliskiing. Helicopters can negatively impact mountain goat survivability if they fly too close to the animals, and most regulating agencies require a buffer between helicopters and wild game.

According to the BLM plan, mountain goat population declines over time would trigger permitting changes. Those standards apply to the year 2020 and beyond, when BLM updated its management and after Fish and Game’s survey was conducted.

Graham also questioned whether the Fish and Game surveys are evidence of a decline because they lack a baseline estimate to work from. She cited increases in mountain goat populations between 2011 and 2015.

“There was an increase again right after that. Without that baseline to know where the population desires to be we don’t have the answers for all the reasons for increases or declines,” Graham said. “We continue to monitor that. At this point, with these levels, we don’t have any correlations that show our permitting is causing a decline.”

BLM field biologist LeAnne McDonald said BLM is working with Oregon State University to study population changes and trends.

“We’re hoping that by determining these trends that we’ll be able to make better decisions and learn the different population numbers and things like that within the goat populations so we can determine what the actual number for a minimum viable population would be.”

Advisory member and Takshanuk Watershed Council Derek Poinsette called the approach “wrong-headed,” because there’s obvious evidence of a population decline. He questioned why the agency wouldn’t take proactive steps to conserve it.

“I think that’s just a 180-degrees backwards way of going about trying to conserve a population of wildlife,” Poinsette said. “We need to…remove whatever stresses that could be impacting the population, do the additional studies and if in three years we determine we don’t think those helicopters are having an impact we can let them back in there.”

Graham said based on its plan, no helicopters can land on goats’ high-use winter habitat, which is based on Fish and Game models. BLM added a 1,500-meter buffer around such habitat where they are permitting limited landings.