“A zoo, a circus, someone is eventually going to get shot out there.”
Those were a few of the words used to describe the scene of the fall Fortymile caribou hunt during a Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee meeting on Wednesday.
Concerns about the hunt became apparent when the fall hunt was open in August. Hunters using ATVs left the federally managed Pinnell Mountain Trail and surrounding areas damaged by deep ruts near the Eagle Summit and Twelvemile Summit trailheads. Hikers also reported carcasses and gut piles left near or on the trail, which is designated for non-motorized use while the surrounding area, on state-managed land, allows motorized uses.
Now, with a winter hunt of the Fortymile Herd set to open on Oct. 27, management agencies and stakeholders from different user groups are expressing frustration with what happened in August and trying to figure out how to prevent more of the same outcomes during the upcoming hunt.
The theme that emerged during Wednesday’s meeting was that the damage to the Pinnell Trail is only one symptom of a dangerous situation that results from hunters rushing out to get their caribou in areas where the herd is easily accessible from the Steese Highway.
Several participants at Wednesday’s meeting, conducted via Zoom, noted that the damage to the Pinnell Trail is only one symptom of what they see as a larger problem with the way the hunt is managed.
“When you have a two bag limit for caribou in the state of Alaska, you’re probably going to have these problems,” committee chair Kirk Schwalm said.
Karen Brewster, who said she has been hiking the Pinnell Trail for many years, said the problem is not just of land or game management but also of hunter ethics.
“The smell and the sights and the destruction of the hiking trail were very distressing,” she said.
Brewster said she realizes the need for game managers to reduce the Fortymile herd, but said it shouldn’t come at the cost of ruining the area for other user groups.
BLM District Manager Geoff Beyersdorf said agencies could have coordinated better, adding that the BLM, which manages the Pinnell Mountain Trail, was caught off guard by the two caribou bag limit.
The bag limit was announced on Aug. 6 and the hunt opened on Aug. 10. The harvest quota for the fall hunt was set at 5,000 caribou, and of those 3,000 were in Zones 1 and 4, which are the most easily accessible zones of the hunt from the Steese Highway.
Those two zones are also the hunt areas surrounding the Pinnell Trail and can be easily accessed from Twelvemile Summit and Eagle Summit.
One meeting participant said managing the Fortymile herd hunt is complicated by the fact that it is a subsistence hunt and that the closure of a different federal subsistence hunt in Game Management Unit 13 may have contributed to overcrowding along the Steese Highway.
Former Board of Game Member Karen Linnell said she didn’t think the closure in Unit 13 was the reason for overcrowding but pointed to something else: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were a lot of folks out in the woods that have never been hunting before,” she said, adding that the pandemic has people worried about meat shortages.
Echoing Linnell’s theory that inexperienced hunters accounted for some of the problems, committee member John Siegfried said the hunt’s ease of accessibility and proximity to Fort Wainwright could also be a contributing factor. He said that military personnel who are unfamiliar with hunting for caribou or hunting in Alaska are likely adding to the chaos of the situation and that providing more hunter education to military members could be helpful.
In an interview with the Daily News-Miner, Beyersdorf said the BLM is working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to try to ensure similar problems don’t happen during the winter hunt. He also said the situation is not unique to this year.
The BLM noticed some of the same problems during the Fortymile hunt in 2019 and has been working to address them through coordination with other agencies, public outreach and making sure information is available to hunters.
“We’re gonna have some snow fencing at both the trails, Twelvemile and Eagle Summit,” he said. “We’ve identified a couple different user groups we could get information out to.”
As for work to repair damage to the Pinnell Trail, which Beyersdorf said will take years to fully restore, it will mostly have to wait until next spring.
“Within the last two weeks I went up with my staff and spent a day up there and we removed carcasses from the trail,” he said. “With the ground being frozen up there, there’s not a lot we’re going to be able to do this year.”
Contact staff writer Sam Ferrara at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.