Slippery Slopes: Climate change has dire consequences for Chugach Dall Sheep

Slippery Slopes: Climate change has dire consequences for Chugach Dall Sheep

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By Paul Forward

Growing up in Eagle River, Alaska, the Chugach Mountains were literally in my backyard. My parent’s house was the last house on the street and it was a ten minute walk in the woods to the boundary of Chugach State Park. Twelve months per year, my brother, our friends, and I would be up there chasing hares and grouse, tromping around on skis, jumping off cliffs into deep snow, camping, building forts, and generally exploring the local mountains and forest. We frequently saw moose and occasionally a black bear, grizzly, or lynx. As long as we weren’t cutting down trees or building big fires, our parents let us roam at will and were even okay with winter camping adventures starting around age 12. (Those were some cold nights with bad gear!) 

The one time of year that we weren’t allowed to climb up into the cliffs was each spring when the Dall sheep ewes would come and lamb in the cliffs above the neighborhood. We’d check on them daily with binoculars and our whole family would get excited when the number of white dots started to increase with the arrival of new lambs. I could see them out of my bedroom window. One of my dad’s corniest jokes was talking about his kids “counting sheep” when going to bed. 

13-year-old Paul and his first sheep.

When I was 13 years old, I drew a Dall Sheep tag for an area of the park starting about 15 miles from the house and partly accessible via a popular local hiking trail. The summer prior, I did a few trail runs out into the area with a friend. Even with my very cheap, tiny binoculars, I could tell there were sheep up in a few drainages and selected one that seemed to have a reasonable approach. Unfortunately, as the hunt got closer, my dad got called away on a work trip, but he was able to get a young hunting buddy of his to take me on the hunt. The hunting party consisted of the 25-year-old family friend, my 11-year-old brother, and me.  I insisted on taking my old recurve bow and our buddy insisted on dragging along my dad’s old .270 “just in case we couldn’t get into bow range.”

After a few days of hard hiking and climbing, we found ourselves about 100 yards from a bedded, old-appearing, double-broomed ram facing the opposite direction. I was a stubborn kid and had already killed a moose and caribou with my recurve, so I wanted to give it a go with the bow. However, our friend gave me an ultimatum, and I took the ram with the rifle. A big part of me still regrets that I killed that ram with the rifle, but my love of the Chugach and hunting in the mountains was cemented within me. 

Now, almost 30 years later, the Chugach continues to be a central focus in my life. I live in Girdwood now, but my house is still only a few hundred yards from the Chugach State Park boundary. I spend my winters backcountry skiing and ski guiding guests from all over the world throughout the Chugach Range. In the summers, I paddle whitewater in my kayak almost every day and go on hikes and mountain bike rides with my family. And every August, something clicks on in my brain and my thoughts are utterly consumed by getting out into the woods and hills, pursuing my single greatest passion: hunting big game in Alaska with my longbow. Throughout those years, the Dall Sheep has always stood out to me as the iconic representation of the Chugach Mountains I love so much. 

Paul with his 2017 Dall Sheep tradbow harvest.

In 2017, I drew an archery Dall Sheep tag for the Chugach and spent most of September trying to get into longbow range of an old, mature ram. After 19 nights in my tent and unknown miles and vertical feet traveled on foot, I finally found myself holding the horns of a 9-year-old ram that I had taken with a single arrow at just over 20 yards with my longbow. He was an incredibly beautiful animal, but it was remarkable how little fat he had on him. That hunt remains a lifetime highlight for me because of how much time I was able to spend in close proximity to Chugach sheep. Like that of all Dall Sheep I’ve had the pleasure of eating, the meat was among the finest food I’ve ever tasted. 

Sadly, the Chugach is changing and it’s directly related to climate change. Just in my short lifetime, I’ve seen dramatic changes in low elevation glaciers. I’ve accepted the heartbreaking mid-winter rain storms. The cliffs behind my parents house haven’t had enough snow in decades to jump off of. In some years, their yard is snow-free for months longer than it ever was before.  

Even sadder, there are clear data showing that there has been a significant decline in the overall sheep population. The current estimate is that the 1990’s Chugach Dall population of about 2,200-2,400 animals is currently about 1,200-1,300. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has done years of research to try to understand this decline. Predation, avalanches, and other factors have remained stable for decades; it appears that the primary factor responsible for the decline is decreased pregnancy and lambing rates. Body condition studies on captured sheep strongly suggests that the primary factor here is decreased overall nutrition.

Why are ewes malnourished to the point of decreased pregnancy and lamb rates? Research is ongoing, but it appears that there is a strong correlation between changes in vegetation caused by climate change and the sheep’s nutritional status. As I and other frequent mountain travelers in the Chugach have noted, the alders and other typically mid and lower elevation flora have become increasingly large and increasingly found at higher elevations. While inconvenient for skiers, hunters and hikers who now have to bushwhack to get to the alpine, the consequences for Dall Sheep are much more dire. As the alders rise, they increasingly squeeze out the normal alpine vegetation that exists between the alder/tree line and the rocky cliffs above. And in this increasingly narrowed elevation band are found the primary dietary staples of Dall Sheep. 

Paul and his growing family on a hike this summer above our their Girdwood home.

As in many other parts of the state, climate change is also altering the basic character of winter for Dall Sheep in the Chugach. While intuitively it might seem that milder temperatures would be easier living for high alpine dwellers, the opposite is often true. As warm temps and high freezing lines become more common in the winter, there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency of high elevation rain. I can attest to this personally as someone who studies weather all winter and digs snow profiles for avalanche work almost every day of the ski season.  Winter rain can have dire effects for sheep by coating rocks and snowy slopes in very slippery ice, leading to more falls, which is already a leading cause of death for sheep. Second, and perhaps more dire, is the possibility of rain or very wet, heavy snow that falls and then refreezes, making an almost impenetrable barrier for sheep accustomed to digging through typically cold, dry snow to find their preferred winter foods. 

Through unfortunate political tribalism and a lot of misinformation, climate change has become a polarizing issue, even to hunters who all want the best for wild places and wild animals. The scientific community is in clear, overwhelming consensus that human activity is causing these changes and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the animals we most love are directly threatened. There is good reason to believe that the Dall Sheep of the Chugach is an indicator species for how well we do in addressing this existential issue. There are clearly even more dire consequences to the world and humanity posed by unmitigated climate change but, for many of us, the threat to wild Dall Sheep is a heartbreaking development. 

I dearly hope that we, the hunting community, can get past political tribalism, accept the science, and tell our representatives that we need an urgent and widespread response to climate change at every level of government. The future of animals that we love and depend on is at the mercy of our decisions. 

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