FAIRBANKS The favorite story Steve Schwartz tells about the thousands of hunters who fail to return harvest reports each year in Alaska is about the hunter who decided to sell his pickup truck and found a 2-year-old moose harvest report as he was cleaning it. The hunter sent the report in, figuring it was better late than never.
''That stuff happens,'' said Schwartz, a research analyst for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ''People throw it in the back of the truck and forget about it.''
While thousands of hunters spend a week or two in the woods trying find a moose each fall in Alaska, the state spends thousands of dollars and several months trying to track down many of those hunters after they fail to return harvest reports from their hunts.
This year, for example, the state recently sent out more than 21,000 reminder letters to moose hunters, approximately 10,000 to caribou hunters and 2,600 to sheep hunters.
The total cost to the state was more than $20,000, and that was just for general season hunts. That didn't include unreturned harvest reports from the approximately 23,000 drawing, registration or Tier II hunts issued last year, which take more time and money than general season reports to track down.
''We essentially send out a duplicate harvest report to people who don't report,'' said Schwartz. ''It costs us to print that, we pay to mail them that reminder, we pay the business reply piece that comes back. ... It adds up when you're talking about thousands of people who don't report.''
Most of the time it's unsuccessful hunters who fail to report, Schwartz said.
''People are more willing to report if they're successful; it's just kind of a natural thing,'' he said. ''A lot of people think, 'I didn't get anything, so what difference does it make?'''
Hunters are supposed to return their harvest reports within 15 days of the close of the general season, which for most moose hunters is the end of September.
In drawing, registration and Tier II hunts, which are designed to limit the harvest or number of hunters, hunters have between one day and two weeks to report if they were successful. People who don't hunt or weren't successful must return their permits within two weeks.
Harvest reports from hunters play a vital role in the work of state wildlife biologists, who use the information gleaned from the reports to manage hunts around the state. In addition to measuring hunter effort in specific areas across the state, biologists use the reports to calculate harvest and success rate, among other things.
For example, if hunter effort goes up in an area but harvest remains the same, that could be a sign the moose population is declining, she said. The same is true if effort remains the same and harvest decreases. In some areas, harvest reports provide the only information biologists can get.
But state administrators say they can no longer afford to spend thousands of dollars to remind hunters to send in harvest reports. With budgets declining the Division of Wildlife Conservation is anticipating a 10 percent reduction in its budget this year state agencies like Fish and Game are hunting for ways to save money and cut costs wherever they can.
As a result, the department may start getting tougher on hunters who don't report. That may mean fining more hunters for failing to report on time or in some cases even putting hunters who don't report on a black list so they won't be allowed to apply for that hunt again.
That's easier said than done, however, Harms acknowledged. The Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement is responsible for issuing tickets to hunters for failing to return harvest reports and wildlife troopers have bigger fish to fry than chasing down hunters who forgot to turn in a harvest report, she said. Enforcement of that regulation has been minimal at best in past years, Harms said
''It's not consistent,'' she said. ''We can scream and yell that they're going to get a ticket in the mail, and they might not get one for five years.''
The department is also trying to come up with a system that will allow hunters to report via e-mail, which would be cheaper and more user friendly than having to mail in a card, said Schwartz.
Reporting rates for drawing and Tier II hunts are higher than those for registration and general-season hunts because hunters who fail to return drawing or Tier II permits are put on a blacklist. Those hunters are ineligible to get a permit the next year.
In a meeting in Fairbanks in March, the Alaska Board of Game voted to add registration permit hunts to the list of hunts in which hunters could be put on a blacklist. Whether or not that threat does anything to improve reporting rates remains to be seen.
In addition to making e-mail reporting available, another possibility that could improve reporting rates is providing hunters with permanent hunter identification numbers similar to a driver's license number, said Schwartz. Hunters could use their ID number to buy hunting licenses, apply for permits and file harvest reports, he said.
''A lot of people are doing a lot of interesting things electronically,'' Schwartz said. ''There's no reason (Alaska) can't get on board. It's not like (the Internet) is just an urban thing. More and more smaller communities are getting access to the Web.''
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