One of the largest caribou herds in Alaska is shrinking, prompting hunters and conservationists to consider recommending hunting restrictions.
The Western Arctic Caribou Herd population is down to an estimated 188,000 animals, reflecting a 23% decrease over the past two years, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The estimate dropped from 259,000 caribou in 2017 and 244,000 in 2019.
“To go even further, It’s around 60 animals per day that died,” said Tom Gray, a member of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. “This decrease is huge. If this happens again two years from now, we’re going to be really panicking.”
While caribou populations oscillate up and down, “it is always challenging to watch the numbers decrease,” said Fish and Game wildlife biologist Alex Hansen, who presented the new photo census data to the working group this week.
The working group members on Wednesday unanimously decided to change herd management status from “conservative declining” to “preservative declining” to reflect the shrinking population — a decision that could lead to more hunting restrictions in the future.
Under current restrictions, in parts of the Northwest Arctic — specifically, Game Management Unit 23 — Alaska residents are allowed to harvest five bulls or calves a day at any time of year, while cows’ harvest is limited to a seven-month-long season. Nonresident hunters can harvest one bull per year from August to the end of September.
The new management status could lead to a prohibition on the harvest of calves, further limits on the cow harvest for residents and the closure of hunting for nonresidents. None of the restrictions come into effect automatically, but interested groups can recommend the changes to the Federal Subsistence Board and Alaska Board of Game.
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Impacts from changes to the herd are felt across Northwest Alaska, where residents have harvested caribou for thousands of years and continue to rely on the animals to meet subsistence needs.
Crystal Johnson from Kiana said that her youngest son wanted to catch his first caribou last year, and her family “spent a lot of time” on the river hunting, but with no luck.
“We didn’t see one caribou,” she said during a Federal Subsistence Board meeting in November. “We had a really, really tough winter because we didn’t fill our freezer with caribou meat.”
The Western Arctic Caribou Herd population started declining in early 2003 and, with the exception of a slight increase in 2017, has been shrinking ever since. In addition, game managers reported adult female survival being low: The percentage of cows that survived on average over the 2017-2020 time period was 73%, which is below a long-term average of 81%.
Some possible factors contributing to the population decline include increased predation, hunting pressures and changing weather patterns.
“In my opinion, it seems to be the classic death by a thousand cuts,” Hansen said at Wednesday’s Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group meeting. “We have a lot of things going against us and we are working to understand it all.”
Deeper snow and shifting weather patterns can lead to animals dying, Hansen added.
“We’re not currently seeing anything drastic, as far as mass mortality events,” he said, “but we are seeing changes in migrations that put the caribou in different locations.”
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In Buckland, caribou usually arrive by mid-September, but this year, the herd was late again.
“It is now Nov. 17, and caribou still have not arrived in our area,” Sherry Swan said during the subsistence board meeting last month. “Caribou is our main source of food — we rely on it to survive. My main concern is that our people will begin to go hungry if no action is taken.”
In 2020, the first GPS-collared caribou did not cross the Kobuk River until November, which was the latest first crossing since 2010, according to Fish and Game and the National Park Service. That fall, the only Northwest Alaska community that harvested caribou was Noatak, the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council reported.
In the span of 10 years, the first animal crossing has been delayed by two months, “which is just an incredible change,” Kyle Joly, a Park Service wildlife biologist, said this week.
Late migration might also affect cow mortality.
Johnson said last month that resident hunters always try to let cows and calves pass to protect the health of the herd, but when caribou come to their area in late October, the bulls are already in a rut, which gives their meat a strong odor and flavor.
Joly agreed this week: “Those people who all wanted to take big bulls are now going to be faced with animals that are in a rut and stinky and they’re going to want to switch over to cows. ... The timing of migration is a really important component when we think about what to do about harvest management.”
One of the biggest factors slowing down herd migration by almost a month is the Red Dog Mine road, Joly said.
Caribou “have a really difficult time trying to get by the road,” Joly said, showing animated movement patterns recorded by the National Park Service. “One of the most obvious impacts that we see on the caribou migration is this road.”
Following food availability, escaping predators or looking for better terrain or weather conditions can also prompt caribou to change their migration patterns, Joly said.
“A drop in temperature and a dump of snow really drives caribou and they can go really, really far really fast during those episodes,” he said. “If they come across better terrain, less snow, better forage, they’ll slow down. These are important implications related to climate change because we’re seeing much warmer temperatures and much later snowfall in the fall.”
This year, biologists saw caribou slowing down because “they didn’t want to cross with all that volume and power of ice coming down the river,” Joly said.
Northwest Arctic subsistence hunters also expressed concerns to the subsistence board last month that visiting hunters flying small planes close to the ground might affect caribou movement.
“Fly-in hunters are diverting the migration before they reach here,” Kivalina subsistence fisherman and hunter Eugene Wesley said. “They fly miles ahead of where the migration reaches us, and it diverts the route.”
Several sport hunters argued to the board that the correlation between planes and herds’ behavior is not proven and various factors can affect the time and patterns of the caribou migration, including climate change and local hunters’ activity.
“There is no scientific study that supports that aircraft impact caribou migration,” said Adam Owen from Fairbanks.
Joly said this week that biologists don’t see long-term effects of sport hunting on migration patterns, but for hunters, even a small unrecorded deflection that “lasted eight or 16 hours and went a couple of miles” would be enough to ruin their hunt.
The earliest opportunity for new management recommendations to go before the Board of Game would be to submit them before Nov. 1, 2022, for the Agenda Change Request. Regular cycle proposals submitted to the board would be due at the end of April 2023.
Hansen said that state game managers might find it difficult to make a decision on harvest restrictions because harvest reporting in the area is limited: Fish and Game only captures a small percentage of harvest because the majority of hunters don’t have a permit, he explained.
“We realize that the permit requirement is fairly new and we will continue to work with hunters and communities to improve compliance,” he said. “The people of Northwest Alaska depend heavily on caribou, and reporting their catch each year is a simple way they can ensure the viability of the herd for their children and grandchildren.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Subsistence Board has a wildlife regulatory meeting scheduled for April. The board already plans to consider caribou hunting closures for people living outside of the range.
Hansen said that hunt closures for nonresidents would target strictly bulls and won’t be enough to bring meaningful change. He added that a reduction in cows’ harvest might be necessary for the future because cows are the drivers of the population.
The working group members discussed a suggestion to further limit the cow harvest for residents, but no recommendations came out of the meeting.
Caroline Cannon urged the working group to spend more time observing the herd and formulating their recommendations. She said it’s important to remember that subsistence users off the road system rely on harvest, especially during the pandemic.
William Bernhardt agreed: “I think we’re jumping into this a little too fast. I think by putting something like this on the floor — trying to put this recommendation out — you’re taking away from the food on the local people’s table.”
Other working group members asked for a more urgent response.
“We’re getting to the point where we got to pay attention,” Gray said. “What’s the reality of that herd surviving if we’re losing 40,000 animals a year now? Be careful, folks. This herd has been here for thousands of years. Let’s not kill it in a few.”
The story was edited to clarify that the hunting limit of five animals for Alaska residents is daily.