KOTZEBUE -- From a massive Arctic storm to late waves of migrating caribou, residents of this Northwest Alaska town are witnessing some of nature's rarer sights this winter.
As many as 60,000 caribou of the huge Western Arctic herd are making a late trek down Alaska's west coast, and have surrounded the community of Kotzebue since Tuesday.
Alaska Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jim Dau said it's unusual but not unprecedented to see so many animals so close to town. The strange part is how detached these animals are from the rest of the herd. "It's an odd distribution," said Dau. "I've never seen them so dispersed in the fall."
The Western Arctic herd is Alaska's largest and one of the biggest in the world. Its numbers peaked at 490,000 caribou eight years ago before steadily declining. At last count in 2009, Dau said the herd totaled about 348,000 animals -- a 30 percent drop.
He said the portion of the herd passing through Kotzebue now are on their way to their winter grounds, and should settle around the Seward Peninsula and Nulato hills, a trek much of the herd started in early September.
The end-of-season travelers near Kotzebue are coming across the ice at the mouth of the Noatak River and straight into town, Dau said. He said there were tens of thousands of caribou that didn't get that September start with the bulk of the herd. Instead they drifted out west towards the Chukchi Sea, spending at least another month grazing on summer grounds.
'Its weather on the North Slope that gets them moving'
"What the elders say is weather; it's weather on the North Slope that gets them moving," said Dau. "The things that I hear from the elders, they tend to be true."
The last few years, Dau has been working with state biometrician Bob Sutherland to study the effects of weather patterns on Alaska's herds.
"How much of this variability and timing of migration can be explained by variability of weather," Dau asked. His theory is that warm fall temperatures explain part of the reason why so many animals were still in summer grazing mode when many of their counterparts were already occupying winter grounds.
"It's seemed to me that the past 10 years or so, the caribou have been anywhere from two to six weeks late initiating the fall migration," said Dau. "That's being influenced by these warm, Indian summers."
About two weeks ago, the stragglers finally seemed to realize how late in the year it was and kicked it into gear, heading from Cape Lisburne straight down the west coast.
"When they come through Kotzebue, it tends to be that portion of the herd that gets a late start," Dau said.
The animals' proximity has made it easy for local hunters to get their winter game, Dau said. While most hunters behaved fine, rowdy behavior by a few has caused disturbances within the herd and in the community.
"People probably do far more damage just with snow machines than with rifles," Dau said. "It busts up these groups, so it's just mayhem. Calves go in one direction and mothers go in another."
Shock and confusion
This is the main reason a number of stray calves have wandered into town and lingered due to shock and confusion.
Dau said he removed one from the east side of town last week. The calf had not been injured but was clearly separated from his mother. "When I checked on him Saturday, he had not gotten up from where I put him."
The large male calf was likely going into shock, and he wasn't optimistic about its future, Dau said.
He's received reports of dead and wounded caribou in town as well as a number of those stray juniors. When cows and calves get separated, Dau said, these resilient creatures are often expert at finding one another and continuing their journey. When a caribou has been chased with a snow machine, however, the intense stress interrupts their usual grouping tendencies.
Not only does this make it difficult for calves to reunite with mothers, it also makes it nearly impossible for hunters to tell which cows have calves. This is an important distinction to make at this time of year, when the bull males are in rut and their meat becomes undesirable. Most hunters seek cows without calves because they're tastier and not caring for a youngster.
So not only are high-speed chases disruptive and dangerous to caribou, they're ineffective for hunting. With the herd this close, Dau said, there's no need to chase the caribou to find good game.
"You can be as selective as you need to be to get nice fat animals," he said. "You can't do that when you're running along behind them at 30 miles an hour."
Kids on snowmachines and young, inexperienced hunters have caused the most trouble, Dau said.
'Be respectfulof the caribou'
"Then there are some adults that are impersonating kids as well, just like in any community," he said.
However, about a day after the caribou arrived there were few harassment incidents and the majority of the community acted responsibly. Dau and other officials used public radio to urge care when dealing with the herd.
"Be respectful of the caribou," he said. "Use a little compassion and some common sense."
This good judgment is just one of the aspects of maintaining a healthy herd -- and good hunting.
Hunting this fall has been markedly better than the last two years.
"This year was a good year overall for people being able to get caribou. They were pretty widely available."
Nevertheless, the herd is still declining.
"The two things that are affecting this herd are predator numbers -- especially wolves -- and weather events, especially these winter thaws," Dau said. "When we get these mid-winter thaws, people are glad. For caribou, it's disaster. It creates icing conditions that prevent them from getting to food."
But winter isn't the only weather culprit.
"We've had some years of really tough summer weather that have set the stage for caribou to starve to death that following winter," Dau said.
Staying on the North Slope?
Hot, dry summers are prime fodder for the insects that drive the herd to areas of poorer vegetation. They agitate the herd's grazing to the point where the animals don't add the vital bulk needed to survive winter.
Hot and dry conditions tend to lower the quality and quantity of summer vegetation, Dau said, contributing to a malnourished herd.
Ultimately, he believes, warming weather is affecting the rate of the Western Arctic herd's decline and its migration pattern. The herd's odd dispersal may stretch past this late fall season.
"I'm expecting that some caribou are going to stay on the North Slope this winter," Dau said. "There's still caribou up north on the summer range that haven't taken a step."
Dau said migration, which usually ends around this time, could stretch into the third week of December.
Just when biologists think they've got this mass of traveling mammals figured out, new shifts spring up to puzzle over. And for right now, at least, Kotzebue has a front row seat to this herd's newest change of plans.
Dau said there's no way to determine exactly the future routes of the herd.
"People want to know, what's the norm, (but) it's hard to say," Dau said. "Caribou are famous for keeping a lot of us guessing."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder.