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Rifle Magazine
July - August 2004
Volume 2, Number 4
Number 10
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It Cost How Much?

As a professional guide and outfitter, I answer numerous inquiries each year from prospective clients asking about hunting in my great state of Alaska. The focus and methodology of their queries vary according to their interests and experiences, but eventually they come around to the cost of a trip. If the prospective hunter happens to be investigating his first out-of-state guided big game hunt, there is typically a pregnant pause in our conversation as he attempts to fathom the price.

Not that I am overpriced mind you, but as a working man, I fully understand the value of a dollar, and I am only half joking when I say I can’t afford my own hunts. Quality hunting trips anywhere in the world require serious money, because operating in remote wilderness locales presents numerous unseen challenges and expenses. I can’t vouch for all hunting operations around the globe, but from my experiences I can assure you the vast majority of them operate on the slimmest of profit margins. The following is a rundown on where your money goes when you book an Alaskan trip.

First of all, as in every other product and service, the basic laws of commerce apply, and the old axiom of getting what you pay for is true. If somebody offers you a hunt substantially cheaper than everyone else, somewhere something is being compromised. Your cheap hunt could be due to the fact the guide or outfitter is new in the business with minimal gear and overhead. Or he is likely to be operating in marginal territory. He could also be operating on the legal fringes, which would place you and any trophy you might collect in legal jeopardy. Serious hunters will endure most deprivations, as long as they have an honest chance to collect a trophy, but it’s doubtful you will be hunting prime game habitat on a bargain hunt. Your food and accommodations will also likely reflect the price difference.

Alaska, like any area of the globe, has certain regions famous for producing trophy-quality game, but there are vast areas where quality game is scarce to non-existent. The guiding industry in Alaska is a well-established profession, and top quality, trophy-producing areas are highly coveted. At one time the majority of Alaska was divided into exclusive guiding concessions where only a single outfitter was allowed to guide hunters. This proved to be a good conservation management tool but was ruled unconstitutional by our Supreme Court, as they claimed it violated the right to equal access.

Now, anywhere on state land, there is no limit to how many guides, each with an unlimited number of clients, can descend like a biblical hoard of locust. The result has been detrimental to game populations on state-owned lands. There are still a few remote pockets of trophy animals remaining on state lands, primarily due to the areas being difficult to access, but for the most part, trophy quality has declined. The best trophy-producing areas currently managed by the state are where hunters are chosen by drawings. Overall the best hunting in Alaska is currently found on federally owned and managed lands.

Over one-fourth of Alaska is federally owned, and on these areas the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have wisely chosen to retain the concept of exclusive guiding concessions. Guides apply for these concessions and are judged on their ability to provide the public with a high quality hunting experience. Those judged to be best qualified are then awarded exclusive guiding rights to their areas. Guides pay the administering agency a fee at the end of the season, depending on how many and what type of clients they had. This fee, while it can run into thousands of dollars, is but a small portion of what it costs to run a quality guiding operation.

As in any business, there are a burgeoning number of licenses, fees and permits required each year. The following is a list of the ones I am forced to comply with: a state business license, a hunting license, a hunting guide license, separate federal and state permits for each hunting area, a fishing license, fish guide license, fishing business license, federal and state duck stamps, state migratory guide license, plus a local borough guiding permit. In addition, to transport my clients by plane, I am required to maintain a commercial pilot’s license and take biannual flight tests. In order to transport any clients in a motor boat, a U.S. Coast Guard commercial “six-pack” license is required. In order to maintain my guide license, I am also required to maintain a valid Red Cross first-aid and CPR card. Additionally the FCC requires two radio station licenses. One for our long distance single side band radio and another for our marine radios.

In addition to the time and expense the above licenses and permits require, all guides are required to carry an insurance policy covering their guiding business as well as any aircraft and watercraft. If any employees are hired, then workman’s compensation insurance is also required. Insurance costs alone amount to nearly $1,000 per client.

With the exception of the southeastern panhandle of the state, where boats are used, airplanes have become an indispensable fact of life for all hunters in Alaska. Both boats and aircraft are inordinately expensive to operate and maintain in any environment and in remote, bush Alaska even more so. Many guides fly virtually everyday, but I try only to use my planes for hauling gear, guides and hunters into and out of camps. The actual hunting is still done on foot in a fair chase manner, yet every year my fuel bill still amounts to an additional $300 to $400 per client. Yearly aircraft maintenance adds another $300 to $400 per client.

By far the single largest expense of a guided hunt is the guide’s or assistant guide’s wages. With the possible exception of boat or aircraft maintenance, it is also the most important. Most of my guides have been working for me for over 10 years, are highly competent and knowledgeable, and I pay them accordingly. Between $2,000 and $4,000 (depending on the hunt) goes directly to the guide helping you in the field. If they are good, it is also the best bargain of your trip.

Food is also a major expense on a remote hunt. Due to the exorbitant prices and small selection of goods in remote villages, we try to purchase everything in bulk in Anchorage before the season and then send it to the closest village. Ten thousand dollars worth of groceries takes at least a week of wrapping and boxing before it can be sent through the mail with at least $600 worth of postage. Or it can be shipped air freight for $.50 per pound. Then everything from tea to TP must be loaded into a small plane and flown to camp. A fairly accurate rule of thumb in rural Alaska is that everything costs double by the time it reaches the bush. Including the propane or heating oil it takes to cook your food and keep you comfortable, $150 per day per person is a reasonable minimum estimate for food, drink and heat.

So far, depending on the length of the trip, your hunt has cost the outfitter $4,000 to $6,000. Besides the direct operating costs, he has days, weeks and often months of his time and money invested in advertising, attending shows, phone calls, scouting his area, setting up camps and repairing tents, cots, stoves, boats, motors, rifles, cabins, etc., etc. He also has a large investment of both time and capital in his business – boats, motors, quality tents, dozens of cots, pads, sleeping bags, stoves, lanterns, cook gear, backpacks,
rifles, binoculars and spotting scopes, radios, satellite phones, etc.

Most established outfitters also own their own planes or boats. Whether it’s a single $80,000 Super Cub, a $150,000 Cessna or a $500,000 Beaver or yacht, they are a serious financial investment. So are any cabins or lodges they own. What sort of financial returns would any other working professional make with a $500,000 to a $1,000,000 investment?

It’s this unseen hard work, investment, expertise and reputation of your outfitter that warrant the additional price of your hunt. Add to this the fact that guided hunts have a much higher success rate and take larger than average trophies and that your precious time is not wasted learning the country and game habits, and you understand why guided hunts are considered expensive bargains by many hunters.

Sierra Bullets
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