Non-resident deer hunters will be limited to two bucks in one of the most prolific units in Southeast Alaska, the Board of Game decided last week (1-23-23).
The decision came a day after the board had declined to reduce the sport bag limit from six to four deer in the same region.
The state has made it clear: There is not a problem with the deer population in Game Management Unit 4. Rather, there is a people problem.
Jake Fletcher is a board member from Talkeetna, who brought Proposal 10 back for reconsideration on Monday, January 23, just a day after the Board of Game had unanimously voted to keep the sport bag limit at six deer for hunters on Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands – the so-called “ABC Islands.”
“As the Department stated earlier, you know there’s not a biological concern on overharvest to this population,” said Fletcher. “But I think that it’s going to reduce user conflict. I think that under certain weather conditions certain bays get incredibly crowded, maybe non-residents coming into conflict with residents. And I think that this (Proposal 10, with new language) really addresses that problem.”
Sitka, Angoon, and Hoonah are the largest communities in the ABC Islands, but hunters from Juneau can make it down by boat or floatplane if the weather is good. While there are special harvest restrictions around Hoonah, which has a developed road system, the remainder of Unit 4, with thousands of miles of forest and shoreline, is available for any sport hunter, regardless of residency, hoping to fill six tags. Unit 4 is not being overrun by out-of-state hunters. As ADF&G biologist Steve Bethune puts it, non-resident hunting on the ABC Islands is adjunct to resident hunting, or to guided hunts for brown bear.
“There’s not a whole lot of non-resident deer hunters in Unit 4, and very few that are guided,” said Bethune, who clarified:”I would say that there are very few guides that take deer hunters specifically. It’s usually an add-on to a fall brown bear hunt. Certainly there are a few deer hunters (who target deer exclusively), but generally it’s an add-on. I think we talked about earlier how most of the non-resident hunters in Unit 4 are friends and family of people who live in Unit 4 and are just coming up, so they’re probably staying with their friends and family or they’re staying on (boats). Most of the guided hunts are large boat-based hunts, and so they’re staying on those vessels.”
Just the day before, the Board of Game had voted down Proposal 10, which would have cut the sport bag limit for deer on the ABC Islands from 6 to 4. A second, similar proposal (Proposal 11) was withdrawn by its author. Both proposers were active sport hunters in the area concerned that – although the deer population was abundant at the moment – a heavy winter or two could easily change that. Resurrecting Proposal 10 and substituting a two buck limit for non-residents in place of the overall bag limit reduction seemed like a nod toward compromise, especially for subsistence hunters in Hoonah, who feel the most pressure from out-of-town sport hunters.
The board took the additional step of lowering the non-resident limit in the Hoonah “controlled use area” as well. Board chair Jerry Burnett thought this was a reasonable approach.
“We heard from the department that this would make it uniform across the entire unit for the non-residents,” Burnett said. “Make sense.”
On reconsideration, the state Board of Game unanimously adopted an amended version of Proposal 10, which now limits the harvest of black-tailed deer by non-residents to two bucks in Unit 4.
ORIGINAL REPORT, 1-29-23
Despite hunter concerns, sport limit for deer to remain at six for Southeast’s ‘ABC Islands’
The bag limit for the sport harvest of deer in Unit 4 in Southeast Alaska will remain at six, one of the most liberal in the state.
During its Ketchikan meeting over the weekend (1-22-23), the Board of Game unanimously voted down a proposal that would have reduced the bag limit to 4 deer, saying it saw no biological necessity for lowering the harvest. Advocates of the change, however, urged that – given so much ecological uncertainty recently – erring on the side of caution was the more prudent course.
Things have been pretty good for deer hunters in Unit 4 for at least the past decade, as deer populations have rebounded to near carrying capacity for the three major islands comprising the unit – Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof, which are often called the “ABC Islands.”
This is a change from 2006 through 2008, when harsh winters, with especially high snowfalls, dramatically affected deer populations. Fish & Game beach surveys in the spring of 2007 recorded roughly 4 winterkill deer carcasses per mile of shoreline – and the ABC Islands have many miles of shoreline.
Kevin Maier, who proposed the bag limit reduction, was aware of this history, as well as where things stand now. If anything, his proposal was an effort to nudge the Board of Game to think more broadly about changes happening in the ecosystem, and to manage Southeast Alaska’s now-abundant deer population with caution.
“We’re facing incredibly uncertain climate and economic futures, and we owe it to our children and future Alaskans to make conservative decisions,” Maier told the board. “Although I’ve spent most of the last 20 years in Southeast, I grew up in Washington state where I watched dramatic fisheries declines happen in my lifetime. I’m in Alaska in no small part because of abundant fishing opportunity. And I’m hopeful you make decisions that help us avoid the disastrous fate of much of our hunting and fishing opportunity in the lower 48.”
Maier sits on the Juneau Fish & Game Advisory Committee, but offered the proposal (Proposal 10) as an individual. He told the board that he personally would be unaffected by the bag limit reduction, since he didn’t have a large enough boat to hunt in the ABC Islands. In fact, he said his position on his own proposal was neutral.
Unit 4 area management biologist Steve Bethune suggested that many more hunters would also be neutral, as a very small percentage ever filled all six tags, after the bag limit was raised from four to six in 2019.
“And we found that between 2019 and 2021, under this new bag limit, we had an average of 30 non-federally qualified hunters who took five deer and 29 non-federally qualified hunters who took six deer,” said Bethune, “and this averages out to about 88 additional deer per year. It’s about one- to one-and-a-half percent of the annual harvest.”
“Non-federally qualified hunter” is government-speak for sport hunter, or in the case of Unit 4, hunters from Juneau. Every other community on Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands is a federally-qualified subsistence community. Hunters in these towns, including Hoonah, Angoon, and even Sitka, have always been able to take six deer, and also have an extra month of hunting in January on federal lands. The total number of deer taken in the Unit ranges between 5,000 and 7,000 animals per year.
So in a nutshell, 97-percent of sport hunters are taking four deer or less in Unit 4. Why not make that the bag limit? Possibly, because it sends the wrong message to the federal government. This is biologist Steve Bethune again.
“The four-deer bag limit is adequate for most non-federally qualified hunters,” said Bethune. “However, six deer is sustainable and provides an additional opportunity. So it’s going to be fully up to you all on the Board of Game to decide if you want to make changes on the state side to try to influence the federal subsistence board.”
The Federal Subsistence Board meets at the end of the month in Anchorage and will weigh in on several proposals about deer hunting on the ABC Islands, most notably a proposal that would close several major drainages on Admiralty Island to sport hunting during the month of November – the peak deer hunting season – in order provide more access for subsistence hunters. In a relationship that is murky at best, the Federal Subsistence Board relies heavily on research from the state Department of Fish & Game, but sets policy based on different priorities. Often, federal and state regulations overlap, but there is always a possibility that they could conflict.
Paul Johnson, a well-known hunting guide based out of Chichagof Island, also put in a proposal (Proposal 11) to cut back the Unit 4 bag limit for deer, but withdrew it when it became clear that the Board of Game was not going to support Maier’s proposal. Unlike Maier, Johnson did have a “horse in the race” with a four-decade career in guiding on the ABC Islands. The board kept Johnson at the testimony table for a few minutes, just to hear his opinion on the issue. Johnson didn’t disagree with state biologist Steve Bethune, he didn’t sense any urgency to lower the bag limit, but he felt the four-deer limit was probably more cautious.
“I always felt the four-deer limit held the test of time,” Johnson said. “Times have changed, the department has got different concepts on what’s happening around. I don’t want to interfere, it’s above my level. But I can say that Steve’s right it’s the winters that play the biggest role”
Nevertheless, the state Board of Game unanimously voted down the proposal to reduce the sport bag limit for deer on Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands.