It’s not quite the Mega Millions lottery, but hunters do face some tough odds if they want to pursue sheep near Anchorage, bison anywhere, or moose off the road system south of the Alaska Range.
The odds for one particular sheep hunt last year were less than 1-in-2,000. That’s just the chances of getting the permit and doesn’t factor in the probability of having a successful hunt.
To help hunters strategize about what hunts to apply for, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game publishes statistics about the previous season every fall as the deadline to apply for drawing permits approaches. The deadline to apply for drawing permits this year is Dec. 17.
As in past years, the most sought-after hunts tend to be the ones that have good road access or chances to hunt species that are more scarce or both.
Among the hundreds of drawing permits available, here’s a look at the five permits that were the hardest to get last year. Hunters can increase their chances by applying for specific hunts multiple times. The number of times varies, but in most cases the maximum is six applications per specie.
1. Sheep hunt DS123, Game Management Unit 14C (Chugach Range near Anchorage)
2018-2019 stats: 2,358 applications for 1 permit, 0.04 percent chance of success
All the drawing permits for sheep in the Chugach State Park outside of Anchorage are difficult to get. Chugach State Park sheep permits are among the most coveted in the state both because of the access near Alaska’s largest city and because of the area’s reputation for big sheep, said area wildlife biologist David Battle in Anchorage.
“It’s good habitat. We have some massive sheep that come out of there,” he said. “Every year we have some 40-inch sheep that come out.”
This hunt permit, DS123, was by far the hardest drawing permit to draw last year, although it was among several with less than 1 percent odds. Open to Alaska residents only, the DS123 permit lets one hunter take a full-curl ram from one of several drainages, including a promising-sounding hunting location called “Ram Valley.”
The season for this permit is particularly long, Aug. 10 to Sept. 30.
2. Moose hunt DM324, Game Management 13 (southern Alaska Range)
2018-2019 stats: 7,769 applicants for 5 permits, 0.06 percent chance of success
This permit allows five Alaska resident hunters to take any bull moose from Game Management Unit 13, a large area with lots of road access to the south of the Alaska Range. The popularity of this moose permit is likely linked to the popularity of the subsistence caribou hunt in the area, said area wildlife biologist Todd Rinaldi in Palmer. The Nelchina Caribou Herd is the largest caribou herd within a few hour’s drive from Alaska’s largest city and is a popular target for both Anchorage and Fairbanks hunters. The caribou hunt affects moose hunts because one requirement of the subsistence caribou permit restricts moose hunting: The caribou permit holders aren’t allowed to take moose from outside of Game Management Unit 13.
Besides DM324, the only moose drawing permit for Alaska residents in the unit is an antlerless moose hunt.
After years with high hunting quotas, a survey last summer found the Nelchina caribou population has dropped significantly and is now in the range that state biologists have set as the target population for the herd. The new caribou population means lower hunting quotas and likely less interest in the subsistence caribou hunt this year. That may also dampen interest in the DM324 moose permit, Rinaldi said.
In addition to the subsistence hunt, there is a popular drawing permit for Nelchina caribou, DC485. Last year that hunt received more than 38,000 applicants — more than any other hunt in Alaska — for 5,000 permits. Biologists cut the hunting season short because of the high numbers of hunters pursuing a small quota. This year, hunters can expect a 90 percent reduction in the number of Nelchina Caribou Herd permits available by drawing. The number is expected to be lower than 500, Rinaldi said.
Youth hunters will have a new opportunity for the Nelchina herd in the recently created YC495 hunt, which gives 200 hunters ages 10 to 17 a chance to target Unit 13 caribou in an early season, Aug. 1-5.
3. Sheep hunt DS134, Game Management Unit 14C
2018-2019 stats: 492 applicants for 1 permit, 0.20 percent chance of success
Like DS123, this is a Chugach Mountains hunt for a full-curl ram near Anchorage open to Alaska residents only. The hunt area is on the northern side of the Eagle River.
The DS134 permit only covers the dates Aug. 10-22, a 12-day window within the hunting season. Another drawing permit, DS135, runs Sept. 5-17 in the same area. Last year, the chance of drawing the permit for the later hunting window was about twice as good as for DS134.
For sheep drawing permits that divide up the hunting season into separate windows, the earlier seasons are usually more competitive than the later seasons, said Battle, the state wildlife biologist in Anchorage. Most hunters like the early season because it gives them a chance to get after a ram they’ve been scouting before another hunter kills it and before winter weather descends in the mountains. But some hunters prefer rams with the thicker coats that are grown later in the season.
4. Sheep hunt DS150, Game Management Units 7 and 15A.
2018-2019 stats: 1,087 applications for 3 permits, 0.28 percent chance of success
Like the Anchorage-area sheep hunts, this Kenai Peninsula drawing permit for a full-curl ram is likely popular because it’s a road-accessible sheep hunt. The hunt covers an area in the eastern Kenai Peninsula that straddles Game Management Units 7 and 15A and runs from Aug. 10 to Sept. 20. It’s open to Alaska residents and nonresidents but is one of several hunts that restricts nonresidents to one full-curl ram every four years.
The Kenai sheep hunts are popular despite a perception that Kenai sheep populations are struggling, said area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger in Soldotna. Hunters took a full-curl ram in this hunt in both 2018 and 2017, but before that, three years passed without a harvest, he said. Biologists still need more data to assess the Kenai sheep population, but it’s thought the sheep may be struggling because of icy conditions that make it hard for them to access food, Selinger said.
5. Bison hunt DI403, Game Management Unit 20D (Delta Junction area)
2018-2019 stats: 15,570 applicants for 45 permits, 0.29 percent chance of success
Demand for bison hunting opportunities far outstrips supply everywhere in Alaska. All bison hunting is regulated through drawing permits, and all permits are hard to get with 1 percent or less-than 1 percent success rates. DI403, a Delta Junction hunt, is especially popular because there’s road access around Delta Junction and because the bison population is especially strong there, said area wildlife biologist Bob Schmidt in Delta Junction.
All the bison available for hunting in Alaska are plains bison, descendants of a group brought to the state in 1928. The population is likely especially strong around Delta Junction because of the strong winds coming out of the Alaska Range that blow the ground free of snow and help the bison reach food during the winter, Schmidt said. The Farewell herd in the western Interior did have a strong population but struggled with heavy snow this spring, he said.
In addition to the Farewell plains bison, the western Interior is also home to an experimental herd of wood bison, larger cousins of the plains bison. But that herd isn’t yet large enough to be hunted.
The other side of the spectrum
Looking at the previous year’s hardest-to-get hunts gives a window into what’s popular, but piling onto the lotteries that were popular last year is poor strategy. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides the drawing statistics in order to encourage people to apply for less-popular hunts. Competition for permits for the most competitive species like bison and sheep is always tight, but better odds are sometimes available for hunters willing to travel farther afield.
For hunters who don’t get picked for a drawing permit, a list of hunting opportunities for undersubscribed hunts — those with fewer applicants than permits — comes out in the spring. Come hunting season, other opportunities remain with general season harvest tickets and registration hunts.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors