For Laura Felthauser, this year’s hunt along the Denali Highway was pretty uneventful.
“The caribou were very sparse,” she said. “We did not see any out there this year.”
Felthauser is 28 and lives in Wasilla. She’s gone out looking for caribou in the state’s most popular hunting corridor each fall for a few years, one of the thousands of Railbelt residents who put in for a permit to have a shot at bagging a single animal from the Nelchina herd.
“We wouldn’t be able to afford anything like fly-out hunts,” Felthauser said. Her father has a physical disability, so the fact that the two of them can drive together up to the 135-mile dirt highway stretched from Paxson in the east to Cantwell in the west is an enormous benefit, as are the abundant pullouts for camping and waters to fish.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Wednesday morning that the Tier 1 subsistence hunt would shut down at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, with hunters expected to fulfill the harvest quota less than 10 days after it opened on the first of the month. For the last few seasons, the hunt has been split into two periods, and the first opening in August lasted just a week.
It’s a stark contrast to the last couple years, when managers have had to extend hunting opportunities all the way into September and through the winter to try fulfilling those quotas.
The main reason for the quick closures this year is that there are not as many Nelchina caribou as there have been in recent years, just 1,250 animals available for harvest, targeted by more than 10,000 permitted hunters.
“It’s not abnormal for this to happen,” said Heidi Hatcher, the area biologist for Fish and Game, from her office in Glennallen.
“What’s kind of different this year, is the last several years the herd has been too big,” she said. “So people have gotten used to excess.”
State managers try to keep the herd between 35,000 and 40,000 caribou, and during the last few hunting seasons the population estimates have been considerably above the high end of that range. In 2020, for example, roughly 9,700 hunters were competing for 5,090 animals. Managers extended the fall season and provided winter openings to try to hit harvest targets, something Fish and Game says is important to keep the herd sustainable, and not so large that animals overgraze or starve.
Those efforts were helped by a migratory fluke: Much of the Nelchina herd overwintered within the hunting area, and so were accessible to snowmachine hunters.
One consequence of that, however, was fewer animals available for harvest this fall, even as the number of permitted hunters remained high.
Not everyone is pleased with how low this year’s quota was set.
Ivan Clark oversees “Nelchina Caribou Hunting,” a Facebook group for sharing information about the herd. He said the numbers used by Fish and Game don’t add up, and he believes managers’ population estimates are flawed.
“They either screwed up last year or this year,” Clark said.
Hatcher said she expects the number of permit applications to decline for next season, with unlucky latecomers likely to look for caribou opportunities elsewhere.
Or, they might simply adapt, and try to out-compete other hunters for a smaller quota number.
Anchorage resident Jeff Young has hunted caribou in the unit around the Denali Highway since 2008, and been successful every year.
“We’re in there the first day,” he said of his approach. He and his partners park their trucks and hike into the hunting grounds before the first opening in August, positioning themselves to go for caribou at the earliest opportunity.
It’s a strategy he’s refined over time, avoiding the highway in September, as there tend to be far more hunters, especially over the long Labor Day weekend, when “every pullout (is) just maxed out with ATVs and Winnebagos and trailers.”
Young and his partners got a cow and a bull this year. But other friends of his weren’t so lucky: Not long after getting on the Denali Highway from Cantwell, just before losing cell signal, they learned the hunt was set to close before they would have an opportunity. Even though they’d headed out relatively early, they’d missed their chance.