Dos and don'ts of hunting on wildlife refuge

Know before you go

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2000

Hunting season on the peninsula is often heralded by sportsmen checking equipment, reliving tales of past seasons, planning routes and the like.

Hitting the regulation books isn't often seen as one of the highlights of the season, but it is as important a preparation as readying gear and buying bullets -- especially when hunting in a managed environment like the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Archery moose hunting season opened Thursday for hunters that took an approved bowhunter safety and proficiency class, and the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area opens for small game hunting on Oct. 1.

"We haven't really seen much activity yet," said Refuge Manager Robin West. "It's still warm, and people like to wait for it to cool off first. It's pretty tough moose hunting when it's this hot. The moose don't move around as much when it's warm and the vegetation is still tall, so they're just harder to find in conditions like these.

The general season moose hunt opens Aug. 20 for Game Management Units 7 and 15. The same antler restrictions that have been in effect past years will be used this season, in order to maintain the bull moose population.

Caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goat and small game hunting opened Thursday, although state drawing permits are required for certain locations and species.

Small game hunting opened Thursday for most areas of the refuge. Spruce grouse and ptarmigan hunting is expected to be good this year, as is waterfowl hunting, which opens Sept. 1.

Snowshoe hare prospects only get a fair prediction, as populations are declining in many locations of the refuge.

"Snowshoe hares have a natural cycle of roughly 10 years," West said. "We're just on the downward swing now. We've noticed a decline now for a couple of years in our surveys, but they will rebound in a few years."

Moose hunting is expected to be average to fair this year, although some areas lost a larger number of animals this winter than others.

"There are fewer moose," West said. "It's primarily a habitat condition -- the habitat just doesn't support as many moose in the wintertime as it used to. But the moose population is still strong on the Kenai Peninsula, relative to the last 20 to 30 years."

In addition to the habitat restriction, two hard winters in a row took a toll on the population.

"We lost quite a few calf moose last year," West said. "They spend all of their first year just getting big, they don't build up any fat reserves. When a tough winter comes, they're the first ones to starve. A lot of those legal bulls would be those yearling calves that didn't make it."

The use of aircraft in the refuge has been restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration. Pilots are required to maintain a 500 foot minimum altitude when operating an aircraft above the refuge and are advised to stay 2,000 feet above the ground.

It is a violation to operate an aircraft in a way that harasses wildlife or hunters. According to West, wildlife harassment can include trying to drive an animal out into the open with an aircraft. Some animals, such as Dall sheep, mountain goats and migratory birds, which are especially sensitive to aircraft, should be avoided altogether.

"The whole harassment issue mostly comes from complaints in the Swanson River area," West said. "People hiking and canoeing in complain about a lot of people flying in low over their camps and the moose in the evening, spotting and that kind of thing."

Certain landing sites, such as refuge lakes with nesting trumpeter swans, are not authorized for aircraft landing until Sept. 30. The refuge headquarters provides a brochure that lists areas that are open for aircraft landings.

Under state hunting regulations, moose hunters are not allowed to utilize aircraft in any way, including for moose spotting or transportation of hunters, meat or equipment, until 12:01 a.m. Sept. 11.

The discharge of firearms in the refuge also is regulated and is allowed only for authorized hunting. Discharging a firearm across a road and target shooting are prohibited. Firing within one-quarter mile of the Sterling Highway between the eastern refuge boundaries to Skilak Lake Road and developed facilities in the refuge, including campgrounds and trail heads, also is not allowed.

Foot and horseback travel only is allowed on refuge oilfield service roads, and off-road vehicles are not allowed anywhere on the refuge. All terrain vehicle users caught in the refuge could face anything from a fine to losing their vehicle or being charged with restoration work, depending on the severity of the situation, West said.

The Mystery Creek Access Road and a portion of the Alaska Pipeline Company's right-of-way corridor were opened Wednesday and will remain conditionally open until Oct. 21.

"If we get really bad weather to where the road is getting torn up and people are getting stuck, we usually just close the road early in the season to protect people and the road both," West said.

The tracks are open to licensed vehicles only, which must remain on the road and corridor. While any vehicle that is legal to drive on a highway can be operated on the road, drivers do so at their own risk.

"People get stuck in there all the time," West said, "and yet we still see people drive down there with passenger cars and things like that. The beginning of the road isn't bad, it's actually a real graveled road. But when you get down there to the pipeline, it's just a right of way."

West advises four-wheel-drive vehicles be used and that people use caution when on the road.

A general word of advice refuge personnel impart is that individual safety and courtesy make everyone's hunt a more enjoyable experience.

"It's a good idea to make yourself visible during hunting season," West said. "It's not like there's been a problem in the past we're trying to call attention to, it's just common sense."

Copies of the Alaska hunting regulations effective July 1, 2000 through June 30, 2001 are available at the Fish and Wildlife office on K-Beach Rd., the Kenai National Refuge headquarters on Ski Hill Rd. and generally any business that sells hunting licenses.

Some refuge subsistence hunts have additional regulations, which can be obtained at the refuge headquarters. Refuge-specific regulations are available at the refuge headquarters and the library, by looking under the 50 Code of Federal Regulations.

More information about hunting in the refuge can be obtained by contacting the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters at 262-7021.

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