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Burgeoning Nelchina caribou herd allows biologists to expand hunt

Mike Campbell
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A surprise population boom in a caribou herd that roams the Nelchina basin 100 miles northeast of Anchorage is going to mean more opportunities for a select group of hunters who applied for permits last year.

In June, biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game counted 46,500 caribou on the herd’s calving grounds. They had expected a drop in production because of heavy snowfall last winter in portions of the herd’s range.

The herd size is now considerably above the population objective of 35,000-40,000 animals. Biologists believe that's the biggest herd the area can support without overgrazing the range. 

More permits

An aerial survey using several airplanes took place under superb conditions this year, according to Fish and Game.  And the agency is comfortable that there are now at least 46,500 Nelchina caribou.

As a result, the agency plans to issue an additional 2,425 permits for what is considered Alaska’s most-popular caribou hunt.

Located between the population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Nelchina herd is one of the few accessible from the Alaska road system.

“We need to curb the herd’s growth by bringing in additional hunters this year to avoid long-term damage to the herd’s range,” said Fish and Game area management biologist Becky Schwanke. “While increased harvest opportunity is a plus, it will mean more hunters this year.”

'Great at surviving'

Like most Alaska caribou herds, the population of the Nelchina herd tends to yo-yo, depending on an array of factors. In the early 1970s, when biologists began to use radio collars on caribou, the herd’s population was “pretty darn low,” Schwanke said, numbering about 12,000 animals. It peaked in 1995 at about 50,300 animals before dipping slightly and then recovering.

“Caribou are notoriously great at surviving,” she said.

The Nelchina herd ranges over a vast, 23,000-square-mile area that stretches from the edge of the coastal Chugach Range mountains north to the Tetlin Flats near the Canadian border. The animals' range parallels or crosses the Glenn, Richardson, Parks and Taylor highways. Accessibility is why it is Alaska’s most hunted herd. An average of 3,400 hunters participated in Nelchina hunts from 2008-10, Schwanke said, with an average harvest of 1,500 animals.

The preliminary harvest quota for this season is 5,500 caribou -- 1,500 cows and 4,000 bulls.  Fish and Game has already issued 575 bull-only drawing permits and 5,439 subsistence permits for either sex. Together with federal subsistence hunters, those permit holders are expected to harvest only 3,400 caribou, significantly short of the quota.

Thus an additional 2,425 permits are being drawn from a pool of applicants who entered a hunt drawing at the end of last year. Winners will be listed on the web here. Successful applicants will be mailed permits on Aug. 3. The hunt season runs Aug. 20–Sept. 20 and Oct. 21–March 31. The bag limit is one bull.

“We hope to be able to allow increased opportunity to harvest caribou from this herd over the next couple years,” Schwanke said. But, she added, “we expect harvest quotas to return to normal once the herd is reduced.”

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com