ADF&G Brown Bear and Mountain Goat Habitat Selection Study Results
assembly delays action on heliski map expansion
The heli-ski industry – SEABA and Alaska Heliskiing – has been pushing to expand into fourteen areas that were previously closed. Comments on all areas except one from Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologists show either a high likelihood or the potential to disturb both wintering mountain goats and denning brown bears. The Department requested that any changes to the heli-ski map be reconsidered in one year when their winter mountain goat and brown bear denning habitat models will be complete. The Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee requested that any changes to the heli-ski map be delayed until the ADF&G provides mountain goat, bear and wolverine habitat information. LCC president Eric Holle made the same request of the previous Haines Borough Assembly, which chose to fast track the proposal to expand heli-skiing terrain. At the time of this writing, the assembly is planning to postpone heli-ski map committee and borough manager recommendations until summer of 2017.
Goat Numbers Down
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game study has found that mountain goat populations at the Kensington Gold Mine dropped 45 percent between 2006 and 2011.The decline is most likely related to harsh winters, ADF&G wildlife biologist Kevin White said, although the department has yet to pinpoint a cause. The site’s goat numbers for 2012 and 2013 have yet to be confirmed, he said.
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Helicopter Tourism and Goat Habitat
Lynn Canal Conservation (LCC) has a 40-year history of working to conserve wild salmon, wildlife habitat and the quality of life around Haines. LCC has been involved in heli-ski issues since commercial heli-skiing began in Haines. The following position paper emphasizes standards that LCC recommends be adopted by the Haines Borough in managing this industry.
LCC acknowledges the potential negative impacts of helicopter noise on residential areas and backcountry non-motorized recreation. The borough’s management of heli-ski tours should fully address and minimize these impacts. This paper’s primary focus is on the steps necessary to control impacts to wildlife, particularly mountain goats, but also denning bears and wolverines.
LCC’s position regarding goats is based on the views of the professional biological association Northern Wild Sheep and Goat Council (NWSGC), and on the position of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). Currently, the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, the Bureau of Land Management, and the province of British Columbia all use the NWSGC standards to successfully manage heli-skiing in mountain goat habitat.
NWSCG management recommendations include:
- Helicopter activity should not occur with 1.5 km of occupied/suspected nursery groups or crucial winter range habitats during critical periods.
- Helicopter activity should not occur on or near occupied winter ranges between November 15-April 30, or near occupied/suspected nursery group habitats between May 1-June 15 each year.
- It is inappropriate to assume that habituation of mountain goats to helicopter disturbance will occur over time. Reluctance to flee should not be perceived as habituation; numerous physiological responses occur, even in the absence of overt behavioral responses.
- Long-term monitoring of mountain goat population performance is needed. Control areas to facilitate future behavioral research should be maintained, in which commercial helicopter activity is not permitted. Permits should include enforceable provisions to address cases of non-compliance.
Because north-facing slopes are generally favored by heli-skiers and south facing slopes are the ones most utilized by mountain goats during the heli-ski season, it should be possible to have a heli-ski industry that does not impact goats. LCC recommends comparing ADF&G information regarding occupied goat habitat with the Haines Borough Helicopter-Supported Recreation Area Map as a starting point. Some fine tuning of the map can take place as more information from on-going goat studies becomes available.
LCC supports comments made by ADF&G biologists to the Haines Borough regarding heli-ski management, including the following:
“The impact of additional skier days is unknown. However, it is important that if additional days are considered that they be constrained to existing authorized skiing areas and time periods as depicted on the Haines Borough Helicopter-supported Recreation Areas (2005) map.” (2010 Fish & Game Letter to Haines Assembly)
ADF&G has expressed concerns about helicopter skiing impacts to denning brown and black bears. Mountain goats, bears, and wolverines are most vulnerable to human disturbance in late winter and early spring, the height of the heli-ski season. Little is known about wolverines in the Haines area, but an increasing body of research in the western US and western Canada shows that one of the most significant factors for continuance of wolverine populations is freedom from human disturbance in their denning areas (Ruggiero et al. 2007; Banci 1994). Researchers have observed mother wolverines abandon critical maternal dens as a result of human activity, especially loud, mechanized activity such as snowmachine and helicopter use (Copeland, 1996; Krebs & Lewis, 1999 page 20).
Any increase in skier days or expansion of permitted heli-ski areas may pose additional risk to goats, bears, and wolverines, so it is essential to base such decisions on the best available science. Because it is far easier and cheaper to protect existing populations than to recover depleted ones, LCC supports changes to the existing heli-ski map only if there is direct consultation with, and approval from, ADF&G biologists. Recognizing that any increase in skier days creates pressure to expand the map, skier days should be increased only in small increments, if at all. Careful heli-ski management, enforcement, and utilization of new information as it becomes available are essential to protect healthy populations of wildlife from the potential negative impacts of commercial heli-ski tours.
For more information about mountain goats and the research happening locally and regionally, visit the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Website:
Or check ADF&G's 2014 research and mamangement update for Southeast Alaska - Mountain Goat Trails Publication: