On Tuesday the Alaska Department of Fish and Game opened the south side of Kachemak Bay to a late season mountain goat hunt until Nov. 14. The extended hunting is due to “healthy mountain goat numbers on the Kenai Peninsula and low draw-hunt harvests earlier this fall,” according to an Oct. 24 Fish and Game press release.
The trend in previous decades for Alaskan mountain goat populations — whose range stretches over mountainous areas in the south of the state and includes approximately 4,633 square miles on the Kenai Peninsula — has been a decline, according to Fish and Game biologists.
“According to trend counts from aerial surveys, the goat population across the Kenai Peninsula declined more than 30 percent from the early 1990s to 2006,” wrote Fish and Game biologists Jeff Selinger and Thomas McDonough in a 2008 paper on mountain goat management. “… Although there may have been landscape level changes influencing this decline, we cannot rule out that an overharvest of reproductive females contributed to the decline in the ratio of kids to older goats and the overall population decline.”
Though the present mountain goat population in areas covered by the late-season hunt is high enough to support an extended hunting season, Selinger and Fish and Game Assistant Area Wildlife Biologist Jason Herreman said this isn’t sufficient to draw conclusions about the present mountain goat population, or how the population has been affected by more conservative management.
“A good deal more research needs to be done on the Kenai to better understand mountain goat population dynamics,” Herreman wrote in an email.
One important factor is the proportion of female goats, or nannies. Because nannies don’t breed until relatively late in life — the average age at which mountain goats first give birth is 4.6 years old, compared to 3 years old for caribou and 2–3 years old for moose, according to McDonough and Selinger — their survival rates have a greater effect on population size.
Fish and Game biologists presently measure mountain goat harvest quotas by a point system in which males are worth one point and females worth two. In 2001 Fish and Game banned harvesting female goats with kids. In 2009, it disqualified hunters who harvest female mountain goats from hunting them for the next five years.
“We were seeing a declining trend when we got here in 2002,” Selinger said, referring to the year he started working on goat management in the area, with McDonough as his assistant. “What we really tried to do was encourage harvest of billies.”
For a hunter looking at a goat from a distance across steep terrain in possibly less-than-clear weather, gender can be hard to distinguish. Male goats, or billies, are larger, have thicker horns and are more often found alone or in small groups. Fish and Game offers an online identification guide and self-quiz for hunters. Selinger said the penalties and education efforts have lowered harvest of females.
“I think the biggest thing is it makes people more aware in looking at goats,” Selinger said.
Fish and Game normally gives goat hunting permits by lottery in a “draw-hunt” between Aug. 10 and Oct. 15. However, if conditions are right, a later-season hunt may be opened for hunters who register for permits. Of the Kenai Peninsula’s 31 goat management units, five are open for the present registration hunt,
“We got a little bit more conservative with the harvest of goats, and we saw, instead of the decreasing trend, it leveled out, and it started to increase,” Selinger said. “… Some of it could have been more conservative harvest strategies. Some of it could have been conditions just got better for goats. Now it’s flattening out again, but at a higher level than it was when it reached that valley. We’re trying to manage for that — more of a stable population — instead of an increase or a decrease.”
Herreman said the weather could be another variable in population change.
“One of the highest mortality factors on goat’s winter survival is avalanche death,” Herreman said. “We’ve had a couple of light winters in a row here.”
Registration hunts are open on the east side of Resurrection Bay south of the Snow River and in four regions on the south side of Kachemak Bay — located between Sheep Creek and Grewingk Glacier, and from roughly Tutka Bay to Port Graham.
Herreman said there are five conditions for opening an area to a late-season registration hunt: it must have a stable or increasing population of over 100 goats counted in a survey less than two years old, must have had a below-quota harvest the previous year and must have four goat units (counting one unit for a male and two units for a female goat) left unharvested in the draw hunt.
The number of permits to be given in a registration hunt is determined by the area’s accessibility. More accessible areas are given a lower ratio of permits per harvest quota. A total of 36 permits were made available for the Resurrection Peninsula on the south side of Prince William Sound, while 16 permits were available for the area around Seldovia, which was limited to residents only.
The aerial goat counts that must satisfy these conditions are made every three years, establishing a minimum number of goats in each area, Herreman said, emphasizing that this is a less precise measurement of population than a full survey.
“…Multiple factors during a survey can affect minimum count numbers such as weather conditions, where goats are located in the survey area when surveys are conducted (in brushy areas vs. open areas), air turbulence, etc,” Herreman wrote in an email.
During the draw hunt, a total of 16 male and six female goats were harvested from the five areas presently open to the registration hunt — leaving a total of 28 goat units still to be taken.
Permits for the registration hunt have been available online since Oct. 27, and can also be obtained in person at Fish and Game offices in Soldotna and Homer. However, Herreman said most permits have been taken — only two of the less accessible areas still have available permits.
Though this year’s balance of hunting activity and population observations support extended hunts in five of the Kenai’s 31 goat management areas, Herreman said conclusions can’t be made about the larger state of goats on the peninsula.
“We have other areas on the peninsula where numbers aren’t necessarily increasing, or they’re barely holding on, or they’re decreasing in some places,” Herreman said. “So it depends on where you’re looking at and how you’re looking at it.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.