Decline of Western Arctic caribou herd raises questions about hunting, proposed road

Jillian Rogers | The Arctic Sounder

KOTZEBUE -- A new census completed this month by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that the Western Arctic Caribou Herd has decreased to about 235,000 animals.

As of July 2013, when the count was done, the number of caribou has gone down nearly 100,000 in just two years. The herd peaked in 2003 at 490,000.

Last week in Kotzebue, the Unit 23 Working Group met to discuss a myriad of topics about the herd, including the most recent survey results.

"About half my presentation was on the recent herd estimate and what that means for regulations in the future," said Jim Dau, an area Fish and Game biologist who has worked with the herd for 25 years.

The National Park Service representatives addressed the working group with information about herd versus hunter distribution, while the Bureau of Land Management talked about the ongoing Squirrel River Management Plan.

"No big breaking news about recommendations to the Board of Game. We're all still trying to get our heads around this estimate," Dau said Friday.

"We just finalized the estimate about a week ago, and to be consistent with the Western Arctic Herd management plan, at this level of population with a declining trend, it says we should eliminate the calf harvest, we should eliminate the nonresident cow harvest and we should start restricting the nonresident bull harvest. I don't know if the state or federal agencies are going to start to do that, but it's what we're talking about."

Dau pointed out that the management plan is not a legal document and has no regulatory authority, but the working group has spent years working on and updating the plan should the need arise to restrict access to the herd.

"The discussion has just begun," Dau said.

Exact reasons for the herd's decline are not known but historically the numbers fluctuate from year to year and decade to decade. Factors like weather -- summer and winter -- and predators have affected the count. But these new lower numbers are not outside the realm of counts done in past years.

To verify the latest estimation, 10 percent of the photographs used to count the herd were recounted with the difference between the original count and the recount at the just 2 percent.

"It was quite a revelation to get a census number of 235,000; that's about a 27 percent decline in just the last two years," Dau said.

When the Western Arctic Herd last declined in the 1970s -- from 1970 to 1976 -- it declined 18 percent per year.

"This is not unprecedented," Dau said. "It's not necessarily an indication of bad management or irresponsible use; I think this is what caribou herds have done, probably for millennia.

"They go up, they go down."

With today's technology and practices, however, users and biologists have the methods and knowledge to prevent the herd from dropping much lower then it would naturally.

As for harvest restrictions, Dau said the numbers indicate that they are on cusp of limiting the harvest. It's been 30 years since restrictions have been implemented.

This summer, Dau is hoping to get to all the communities in the Unit 23 game management area to talk with locals about the herd's status and decreasing numbers.

"I want to make sure people know what's going on," Dau said. "I suspect the agencies are going to do something and it would be a lot better to do that with public input."

The proposed road and the herd

Representatives from the Alaska Industrial Development and Energy Authority, the group that is responsible for building the proposed road to the Ambler Mining District, met with the working group Wednesday to give an update.

If built, the 220-mile Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Road would branch off the Dalton Highway near Evansville, pass through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and end in a remote area close to three Upper Kobuk Valley communities near the large copper deposit.

While construction of the proposed road would still be years away, AIDEA began delving into the environmental impact of the road in April. More than $8 million was set aside by lawmakers last month in the Fiscal Year 2015 capital budget for continuing studies.

Based on work that Dau has done in regard to the Western Arctic Herd and Red Dog Mine, the impacts of a road aren't easy to quantify, he said.

"In some years caribou have a terrible time getting across the road (to Red Dog), but that's not consistent," he said. "In other years they get to the road and they cross it pretty easily."

If the lead pack of the herd makes it across the road, the rest of the herd generally follows. If the leaders get turned around, the rest do too, he said.

"It's so hard to try and analyze this kind of thing."

In 2011, about 90,000 caribou hit the Red Dog road, balked and turned around. They ended up near Point Hope before they finally crossed the road four weeks later, Dau said.

"But then the very next year, they crossed the road like it didn't exist," Dau said.

The group that got turned around in 2011 may have only been made up of 5,000 or 10,000 caribou, Dau said. But the rest followed suit by taking cues from the smaller pack in front.

"There are all these other things going on that have nothing to do with the initial stimulus that caused them to turn around, so it's a very complicated situation."

The road to Red Dog is 52 miles, while the proposed road to the Ambler site is 220 miles and would slice through the Brooks Range and Gates of Arctic National Preserve, crossing the traditional caribou hunting grounds and some 200 rivers and streams.

But roads through the pristine Alaska wilds are nothing new.

"The state of Alaska has all kinds of experience with caribou and roads," Dau said.

For example, the Nelchina Caribou Herd, which at last count was between 35,000 and 40,000, navigates the Richardson, Glenn and Denali highways each year.

"That's not to say that roads have no impact," Dau added.

But the impacts might be more to the users then to the animals themselves. Communities that rely on caribou for subsistence are impacted severely when the caribou are overdue.

"When the caribou are delayed by the road, going by Noatak, Noatak sits there waiting, waiting, waiting and there's nothing coming by. When the caribou finally get across the road several weeks later, they blow by Noatak at a dead run trying to make up for lost time. That's a big a deal for hunters."

There are about 40 communities with a combined 13,000 people within the range of the Western Arctic herd, according to Fish and Game.

A study recently completed by the National Park Service, the Wilderness Society and the U.S. Geological Survey stated minor effects of a road on the herd's winter grounds. However, that is just one small facet of the herd's ecology, said NPS biologist Kyle Joly.

Joly and his colleagues evaluated collared caribou in their winter habitat within the areas where the proposed road would go. Using data from published scientific studies, the researchers calculated how much high-quality caribou winter range would be impacted by the three proposed routes to the mining district. They studied the habitat at various distances from the proposed road as well.

The results showed that between 1.5 and 8.5 percent of the herd's winter habitat would be reduced -- a relatively small loss, Joly said.

However, there are many other factors that come into play. For example, the study didn't look at impacts to migration but rather focused on caribou that hunker down in the area for the winter.

"I guess I was surprised that the (loss) wasn't a little bit higher," Joly said. But he added some of the routes ran through burned areas, which caribou tend to avoid because of lack of lichen.

The road has the potential to facilitate additional development projects farther west that could affect a greater portion of the herd's range.

The park service will continue its research by looking at studies done on the Red Dog Mine road and the caribou herd.

The proposed road would not be a public route and would allow for only industrial traffic to and from the mining sites.

"It's hard to predict what the impacts are going to be, but I think it's safe to say that if you have even just an industrial road with any kind of traffic on it, it can affect the caribou," Dau said.

"I think there is a lot of concern, but at the same time there is an awareness that there aren't a lot of opportunities to make money out here. That's the balance that people are struggling with."

Several communities in the Northwest Arctic and the southern and central Brooks Range have come out against the road, said John Gaedeke, chairman of the Brooks Range Council.

"A lot of legislators see this as pretty cut-and-dry: Either you have jobs and you stay in the village, or you don't," Gaedeke said last week. "For me it's much more nuanced. It's about people living off the land looking to pass that on to (the next) generations so they can have clean water and not have trucks, and dust and development."

Like the majority of rural communities across the Arctic, villages in the Brooks Range rely on caribou as a main part of their diet, Gaedeke added.

At a meeting of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd working group in December, AIDEA representatives said they would continue public outreach in the Upper Kobuk communities this summer. They are scheduled to be in Kobuk in June.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished with permission.