After heated discussions, drastic restrictions on hunting the declining Western Arctic Caribou Herd are still on the table.
Northwest Arctic hunters, game managers and conservationists in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group voted last week to reinforce their proposals to limit caribou hunting.
One of the proposals is to reduce the Western Arctic Caribou harvest for local subsistence hunters from five animals a day to four a year, with only one allowed to be a cow. Another proposal is to restrict harvest for hunters not living in the range of the herd — such as fly-in hunters.
“It’s gonna affect everybody,” said Vern Cleveland Sr., the group’s chair and a resident of Noorvik. “The proposal we passed, I hope they get through. This is to help out our caribou and our people. ... The caribou is declining big time so we have to act.”
The long-term proposals were sent to both the Alaska Board of Game and the Federal Subsistence Board earlier this year, and there has been a comment period since then. State and federal managers will decide on the proposals during their upcoming meetings in January and spring, respectively.
Outlook grim despite recent bountiful harvest
The Western Arctic Caribou Herd has been steadily declining for years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently estimated that the size of the herd this year is 152,000 animals, 7% smaller than in 2022.
Vida Coaltrain from Selawik said that before this fall, her community hadn’t had caribou for about three years, which affected the food security of the residents and their ability to carry on their traditions.
While this year showed another drop in population, it brought harvest opportunities to Northwest Alaska. In November, the herd migrated through the region.
“This year, we finally had meat,” Coaltrain said.
“For the first time in a long time, folks have harvested caribou in every village in the borough,” Bobby Schaeffer of Kotzebue told the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub.
Cyrus Harris of Kotzebue said that while “it was good to see caribou again,” their arrival, following the long-term trend, was late in the season.
“Before the climate change really started happening, September is when they crossed,” he said. “Now it’s not until November.”
Overall, despite the bountiful harvest, the picture for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd is grim this year: The survival of adult cows was below average and a harvestable surplus was below the long-term average, said Alex Hansen with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Multiple factors — such as weather, predation, food availability and development — have been affecting the size of the herd and its migration patterns. Last winter, very deep snow also led to many of the animals dying, contributing to the overall decline, said Kyle Joly, a National Park Service wildlife biologist.
“We did have a very poor over-winter survival last winter, so fall of 2022 to the spring of 2023. We had very high mortality rates, probably the highest we’ve ever had,” he said. “We’re not really sure what’s driving the decline, but things like that don’t help.”
Caribou herds typically fluctuate in size, but biologists analyzing herds in other states and Canada say that after a herd reaches a certain low, it doesn’t rebound, Joly said.
As the herd shrinks, animals also need less space and they cross less distance during their migration, Joly said.
As for the times of the migration, late freeze-ups have been preventing caribou from crossing streams and rivers in early fall, and developments such as the Red Dog Mine road have been diverting the herd’s movements, Joly said.
Of the many factors affecting the size, movements and health of the herd, the only thing managers and hunters can control is harvest, Hansen said.
He explained that since cows are responsible for producing calves, the growth of the herd majorly depends on their survival, so hunting fewer cows would help preserve the caribou population.
“We have to cut on our cow harvest if we want caribou to stay,” he said.
Opposition to proposals
To protect the shrinking herd, the Western Arctic Caribou Working Group submitted its long-term proposals to limit hunting. Besides that, they also suggested similar short-term restrictions on caribou hunting earlier this year. After several heated meetings and gathering public comment, game managers declined the short-term proposals.
A big portion of the pushback came from the North Slope.
“Because of the outcry from the people, most of whom are on the North Slope, that proposal failed,” said Nagruk Harcharek, who is the president of the Voice of Arctic Iñupiat and is from Utqiaġvik. “I think that at the subsequent meetings ... you’re gonna get that again from the people on the North Slope, you know — opposition (to) limiting from five per day to four per year because that is not enough to sustain one’s family.”
The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is present in the North Slope region, but residents also harvest caribou from the steadily growing Teshekpuk herd, which does not need hunting restrictions, Joly said.
“We’re in this situation where there isn’t a conservation need and there is a conservation need, and they overlap,” Joly said about the two herds. “Trying to come up with a management regime that works is really difficult.”
Biologists and managers spoke at the meeting about an option to reduce caribou harvest only in Northwest Alaska. However, the group voted to reaffirm their proposals for the whole range of the herd — including a portion of the North Slope.
Guides and transporters spoke at the meeting against the proposal to prohibit hunting the Western Arctic herd for non-resident hunters.
“This is our livelihood,” said transporter Ben Child from Fairbanks.
Some of the alternative ideas brought up at the meeting included putting a limit on how many non-resident hunters are allowed in the area each year. The group did not support that idea.
“The message is all hands on deck,” said Tim Fullman, a wildlife ecologist with the Alaska office of The Wilderness Society. “We should restrict the non-resident hunters as well.”