By Jenny Neyman
Though the 2015-2016 hunting season doesn’t really start until fall, the third Friday in February is an important precursor for hunters who hope to bag a big game animal in Alaska. It was drawing permit hunt announcement day — otherwise known as Christmas for sportsmen.
“Well for everybody but me, apparently, I didn’t even get coal this year,” said Ken Marsh, wildlife information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
He, along with tens of thousands of other hopefuls, applied for the limited number of drawing permits allocated to hunt big game animals in Alaska for the 2015-2016 season. Unlike general hunts, in which any eligible hunter can participate, many big game species in many game management units of the state are only huntable by those lucky enough to win a randomized computer lottery drawing for the scant number of permits available. The number of permits up for draw each year depends on the numbers and health of the targeted wildlife populations, as determined by Fish and Game surveys. It’s a way to provide harvest opportunities on stocks that can’t support a lot of hunting pressure.
“It’s a sustainability thing. When you have a population of wildlife but it’s not big enough to basically satisfy a general hunt where everybody can go out. Say we can only allow 25 antlerless moose to be taken in a certain area to maintain sustainability of the animals in that area, we would have a draw hunt for 25, rather than just open it to everybody and go over our quota and have some sustainability issues,” Marsh said.
The application period was open from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, and applications could only be submitted online. There’s a nonrefundable fee to apply for each hunt, in most cases $5, but that can vary depending on the hunt. The money supports the state’s wildlife management operations.
“Those go to the Fish and Game fund and that helps us manage the critters, and do our jobs,” Marsh said.
The first step in applying for drawing permit hunts is to study up on the rules and regulations. There’s a lot of fine print that requires a fine-tooth comb. All required licenses and fees must be taken care of, which vary depending on whether a hunter is an Alaska resident. Applicants may only put in for three hunt numbers per species, or six hunt numbers for moose, though only three may be antlerless. A hunter can only get one drawing permit per species per regulatory year. If you are drawn for a hunt, you’re ineligible to be drawn for it the next year. Confused? You’d better not be, or your application will be disqualified. Six percent of the applications submitted last year were disqualified out for errors.
Success at drawing a permit does not guarantee success at the hunt. If you don’t get your animal, you’re out of luck. Permits are nontransferable, so if you’re drawn for a permit and end up not being able to hunt it, you’re also out of luck. And if you fail to turn in your required hunt report one year, you’re severely out of luck the next.
“Well, you’d shoot yourself in the foot by failing to return a hunt report. So say I got a permit this year to hunt moose and for whatever reason I don’t turn in my hunt report I be would be ineligible the next year to draw for any,” Marsh said. Last year, 28,125 hunters submitted over 150,000 applications for drawing permits, some for hunts where only one or two permits are issued. The chances of drawing some of the more popular hunts are infinitesimally small — for instance, in 2014, only one permit was drawn for a resident-only sheep hunt in Unit 14C, in the Eagle River area, giving the 788 applicants less than one percent chance at being drawn. Others offer better odds — like a resident-only antlerless moose hunt in Unit 20B, bordered by the Tanana River and Parks Highway, where the 34 applicants had a 12 percent chance of drawing the four available permits.
The draw permits are very much a case of applicant beware. Fish and Game publishes the number of applications and number of permits awarded for each hunt the previous year, and advises applicants to put in for hunts offering better odds of being drawn. But in the hunts where every applicant drew a permit, there are usually good reasons for the 100 percent success rate. The hunts could be extremely difficult or costly to access, not offer much hope of harvest success, be on private land requiring guides or extra fees, come with restrictions on the type of weapon that may be used, or multiple combinations of all these factors. That’s in part why the permits are drawn so far before hunting season, to give hunters time to plan and prepare.
“A lot of these big game hunts have some logistics and require a lot of planning, people have to do some traveling, they have to make some arrangements with flight services, plan float trips, time off work lined up, so it’s not just a simple matter of grabbing a permit, putting on your hat, getting your rifle and going. A lot of planning goes into this,” Marsh said.
Still, optimism runs wild among wildlife hunters in Alaska. The number of drawing permit applicants tends to bump up slightly each year, Marsh said, and the permit announcement day is looked forward to with a zeal akin to a kid waiting to see what Santa brought on Christmas.
“Yeah, people definitely get pumped. I think I actually had dreams about it last night,” he said.
Marsh’s dreams didn’t come true Friday when the drawing results were made available, first on Fish and Game’s website by noon, followed by an email to applicants that was delayed from first thing Friday morning due to technical difficulties.
But some had better luck. Abby Hanna, 21, of Soldotna, drew one of the 150 permits available for an any-bull-moose hunt in Unit 16, across Cook Inlet, out of 1,400-plus other applicants. She said that she, her dad and sister have been applying for drawing permits since her family moved to the state.
“We’ve been putting in every year that we’ve been up here and this is the first hunt that I’ve got since we’ve been up here, and we’ve been up here six years, so that was really exciting.”
The hunt will be a series of firsts for Hanna.
“I haven’t been really across the inlet, so I’ll get to see a whole bunch of new stuff. I haven’t killed a moose, so I’ve never cleaned one, I’ve never processed all the meat, so kind of the whole thing,” she said. She plans to use her actual Christmas present — a bow — for the permit she drew on sportsmen’s Christmas.
“That’s what I hope to kill my moose with, because that would be really cool. If all else fails I will use a gun, but I would like to use a bow,” she said.
For Hanna, the drawing permit hunt offers a more efficient chance at success. In past years she’s gone all the way to the North Slope to hunt for caribou. If she wanted to stay closer to home, she could try for a moose in the general hunt in Unit 15 on the central peninsula, but that’s as unlikely a proposition, given the area’s shrunken moose population and antler restrictions meant to limit harvest, as being lucky enough to draw a prized permit.
“You can get a better hunt out of it and I was hoping to get this one and I got it since I don’t have a lot of time and my dad’s friends with a lot of pilots so it’s a lot easier to take shorter trips across the inlet than go on a long trip like we do for the caribou hunts,” Hanna said.
For the 28,000 or so with Marsh’s luck, as opposed to Hanna’s, that doesn’t mean they won’t still have a successful hunting season. They’ll just have to do it without the help of a permit.
“That’s the way it goes — you pays your money and you takes your chances,” he said. “I’ll go find myself a nice legal spiked fork 50-inch bull somewhere come fall. That’s the thing, the draw hunts give you some great opportunities, but if you swing and miss at that you’ve still got the general hunts to look forward to.”