One of the biggest caribou herds in the world that sustains subsistence hunters in the Northwest Arctic has been declining for the last five years. In 2022, it shrank even more.
The new data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shows that the Western Arctic Caribou Herd population is down to an estimated 164,000 animals — an almost 13% decrease over the past year. The estimate dropped from 259,000 caribou in 2017 to 244,000 in 2019 and to 188,000 in 2021.
“It’s going to be another rough winter again this year without caribou,” Selawik resident Norma Ballot said. “It’s affecting our people, especially our elderly people, that don’t go out to hunt, and our younger people used to share” their harvest with them.
The herd is a traditional subsistence resource for Northwest Alaska, as well as the western North Slope communities, that’s healthy and affordable.
In Selawik, the animals used to come in the first half of September, Ballot said, but this fall nobody in the village has harvested their catch. Now the terrain is covered with thin ice, still not safe enough for the hunters to travel. If the animals do pass through the area this late in the fall, the caribou bulls — the primary focus for hunters — will be already in a rut that makes their meat inedible.
The caribou delay and decline comes at a time when gas prices are soaring in the region, and purchasing groceries is even more expensive. In Selawik, a gallon of cranberry juice costs $10 and a gallon of water is $13.99, Ballot said.
“Because of the price of gas, it’s hard to go hunt every day,” Ballot said. “Once somebody goes out to hunt, they now have to camp out.”
Biologists struggle to single out a leading cause of the caribou population’s decline. Increased wolf predation, changed migration patterns and climate warming affecting food sources can all influence the herd, said Brittany Sweeney, spokesperson for the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint ‘a cause’ for the decline,” Sweeney said. “Likely, it’s multiple things combined.”
Changing snow conditions and changes in the habitat, such as a decrease of lichens on the Seward Peninsula, can be other factors, said Kyle Joly, a National Park Service wildlife biologist.
“The thing that stands out the most is that we’ve had a low survival rate of adult females, adult cows,” Joly said. “What is causing that decline or lower survival rates of cows, we just don’t know. We are looking into different factors.”
The herd has also been changing its migration patterns. The caribou have been migrating almost two months later than usual from their summering grounds on the North Slope to cross the Kobuk River. Additionally, instead of coming to the Seward Peninsula, in the last couple years quite a few animals ended up in the Brooks Range, Joly said.
“Those movements are largely driven by snowfall and cold temperatures,” Joly said. “They’re making those decisions based on changing climate.”
The decline of the herd population and their migration changes are interconnected, Joly said.
Larger herds have larger migrations and use more space. When the Western Arctic Caribou Herd was at its peak back in 2003, it had the longest terrestrial migrations of any caribou herd on the planet, Joly said.
“As the herd has declined, we’ve seen these migrations get shorter and shorter,” he said. “They use less space.”
To support local subsistence hunters and protect the declining population of the herd, caribou hunting closed earlier this year in parts of Northwest Alaska. The closures affected only non-federally qualified hunters — in other words, hunters who live outside the range of the herd.
While local subsistence hunters welcomed the closures, the total number of animals harvested by the non-federally qualified users is relatively small and it’s entirely made up of bulls, so the closures did not affect the population numbers, Joly said.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials in a statement encouraged all caribou hunters to limit the harvest of cows.
“Reducing cow harvest and reducing overall harvest could help the herd,” Joly said.
Ballot said that subsistence hunters in her region don’t harvest cows.
“If it’s a female, they will just let it pass, despite the hardship at home,” she said. “We only hunt for the bulls.”
Subsistence hunters, hunting guides and conservationists in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group will meet in December to propose ideas for supporting the herd population and communities relying on caribou.