By Clark Fair
The premise for the research seemed sound: to establish a baseline of information on the Dall sheep living in the mountains in the Cooper Landing area. It was the “execution” of this research that baffled and even angered some onlookers.
The work by Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional research biologist Lyman Nichols centered on three mountain systems — Surprise Mountain (now called Bear Mountain), Crescent Mountain (now Right Mountain), and the Cooper Landing Closed Area (sometimes called Slaughter Mountain).
When Nichols began his research project in 1970, Crescent and Surprise mountains were open to hunting, and each of the three systems was home to a distinct and relatively isolated herd of Dall sheep being monitored by Fish and Game. In fact, Nichols and fellow biologist Al Johnson had spent 10 days in late November hunkered down on the slopes of these mountain systems, observing the rutting season and taking copious notes.
These observations were part of a larger goal to more fully understand the movements, behavior, diet and life cycles of the wild Alaska sheep. And, in the end, Nichols was successful in furthering this understanding. In fact, many years and many studies later, he was considered a resident expert in not only the Dall sheep, but the mountain goat as well.
Part of Nichols’ plan in 1970 involved controlling the herd numbers on Crescent Mountain, and then comparing them to the numbers on the other two mountains over a five-year study period. Doing this would give Nichols one controlled herd, one regularly hunted herd, and one “natural” herd protected from hunting.
The “control” he hoped to exercise involved reducing the herd size to a specific manageable number and then keeping that number as constant as possible while also maintaining close tabs on each mountain’s range and climate.
According to an article in the Jan. 23, 1971, Cheechako News, Nichols wanted to determine the “ideal range capacities” for the three systems, and to see whether range and population influenced the health of the herd, and the incidence and spread of disease among the sheep.
His goal, then, was to eventually produce the best management plan to ensure the healthiest herds, chiefly to maintain healthy sheep populations that Fish and Game could regulate and humans could harvest.
In order to ensure this healthy state, however, he was going to have to kill some sheep — a lot of sheep, as it turned out.
In the fall of 1970, Nichols performed an aerial survey of the Crescent Mountain herd and counted 287 individual animals. His goal involved working with only 200 animals because, according to the Cheechako, “that is the number biologists feel is ideally suited to the range.”
To begin reducing the number of animals, Fish and Game allowed a special autumn hunt in 1970 to help cull the herd. The hunt resulted in a harvest of 15 sheep.
Consequently, Nichols stated in a Fish and Game release that the further reduction would occur during the winter through the selective targeting of about 75 lambs, ewes and young rams. These sheep would be taken at a rate of approximately 10 per month until biologists did an aerial survey the following summer to determine the success of spring lambing.
Accompanying the Cheechako story was a trio of photographs, the first of which depicted a helicopter in midflight. Dangling in a large net well below the fuselage was the first load of harvested animals, which had been shot sometime earlier that day by biologists from the helicopter itself.
With this load, and subsequent loads in later months, Fish and Game personnel flew the animals to the Soldotna Fish and Game headquarters — located at that time just behind the current site of the Wells Fargo Bank — where protection officers helped unload them.
One of those protection officers was Dan France, who held a degree in wildlife management and did not think highly of Nichols’ research techniques.
“I didn’t see any reason for them to do this — to kill all them sheep with a helicopter,” France said. “I didn’t see any sense in what they were doing.”
After the sheep were unloaded, they were taken inside the Fish and Game facility to be measured, weighed and assessed for health. They were then eviscerated so that biologists could examine them internally for diet and disease; tissue and other samples were taken and sent off to labs for analysis.
Previously, blood samples had also been taken from the animals on the mountain, just after they had been shot and the bodies were still warm.
After the testing procedures were complete, France was then in charge of making sure that none of the meat was wasted. He had to call people on the road-kill list to see whether they wanted meat. Nichols’ original plan, according to the Cheechako, called for the meat to be donated to the school at English Bay, but France said he wasn’t sure whether that donation occurred.
Meanwhile in the community, several conservationists expressed their disapproval of the project, and in January 1971 the fledgling Peninsula Clarion wondered in its gossipy section called “The Ear” whether it was ethical for the biologists to shoot dozens of game animals while citizens were being arrested for harvesting moose out of season.
Longtime Soldotna resident Joanne Odom was bothered enough by the biologists’ actions that she angrily took her three daughters down to Fish and Game headquarters to watch one of the choppers come in with a load.
But the herd reduction — during which biologists killed 48 sheep, according to a report released by Nichols — continued on into the summer, until a June 21 aerial survey. This new count revealed 208 adults and 20 new lambs, which Nichols termed a “poor” number of newborns. He blamed the low lambing numbers on a severe winter and a late spring.
Largely as a consequence of the low numbers, Fish and Game issued in August an emergency closure for all hunting of Dall sheep in the entire Cooper Landing area.
Although his methods sometimes continued to be controversial, Nichols, meanwhile, did learn through trial and error and plenty of hard work. Throughout the 1970s and beyond, he published scholarly papers on the reproduction and survivability of the Kenai Peninsula’s wild populations of mountain sheep and goats.
In April 1976, he presented a paper called “An Experiment in Dall Sheep Management: Progress Report” to the Second Annual North American Wild Sheep Conference held in Denver and sponsored by Colorado State University and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Cooper Landing historian, Mona Painter, who has lived in the area since 1959 and knew Nichols personally, said, “This was really cutting-edge stuff, something that hadn’t been done before. And I don’t remember anybody around here being upset about it, really.”
Still, she said, if a biologist tried such research techniques today, “There’d be hell to pay.”