Caribou declines causing angst for Alaska hunters are part of a wider North American trend

Alaska subsistence hunters struggling with caribou declines and lost hunting opportunities got a message at a gathering in Anchorage last week: They are not alone.

Across the circumpolar north, caribou herds in North America and reindeer herds in Eurasia are declining, and in some cases dramatically. In eastern Canada, herds that used to be huge have crashed spectacularly. The George River herd, which numbered over 800,000 and was North America’s largest herd in the 1990s, has declined by 99%, down to 7,200 animals and yet to show signs of recovery even though hunting was halted in 2013.

The Bathurst herd of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut has declined at a similarly spectacular rate, from 450,000 in 1986 to an estimated 6,240 by 2021; phased hunting restrictions culminated with a total hunting ban in 2016. Other Canadian barren-ground herds have declined by 60% to 80% and are listed by that nation’s government as threatened or endangered, as are Canada’s boreal and mountain caribou in farther south regions.

That puts into perspective declines in key Alaska herds, said biologist Tim Fullman, one of the experts making presentations at the All-Council meeting of the Federal Subsistence Board and its regional advisory councils. Those Alaska herds include the Western Arctic herd, which has declined by two-thirds since the early 2000s, the Mulchatna herd, which has declined 94% since the 1990s, and the Nelchina herd, which has declined 83% in the same period.

In all, caribou numbers in the seven largest of Alaska’s 31 caribou herds have fallen from more than 900,000 to 525,000, the lowest number since 1986, Fullman said.

“When I first came here, I used to say we have more caribou than we have people in the state of Alaska. But that no longer is the case,” said Fullman, who is a biologist with the Wilderness Society and is also a member of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group.

Along with Fullman, U.S. Geological Survey biologist Heather Johnson and retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau described the continent-wide trends in presentations at the meeting.


There are a few notable exceptions in Alaska to the widespread declines, they noted. The Porcupine Caribou Herd that straddles the Alaska-Canada border in the Arctic region reached a historic high in 2017, the last year a census was taken. The Central Arctic and Teshekpuk herds fluctuated but experienced recent increases.

But the decline trend is dominant across North America. Climate change and development, both of which alter habitat, have been cited as likely reasons for widespread declines.

Though predators like wolves and bears have been blamed for some herds’ problems, Dau said he was skeptical about that as an explanation.

“I’ll tell you, it’s hard for me, though, to believe that all of these caribou declines in Alaska are just a coincidence or that they’re all just because we have high wolf and brown bear numbers,” said Dau, who lives in Kotzebue and worked for decades monitoring the Western Arctic herd. “If it was predators, I could see, you know, one or two herds going down, others coming up, but we’re not seeing that.”

Among the most worrisome for subsistence harvesters is the trend in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, traditionally among North America’s biggest. The herd size now stands at 152,000, according to the most recent count, down from a high of about 490,000 in 2003. That has led to recommendations for much-reduced hunting.

[Hunters across several Alaska regions unite to advocate for Western Arctic Caribou Herd protection]

Dau said there is compelling evidence that climate change is at least partly responsible for the declines.

He believes, based on his observations, that the icing events that are becoming more frequent as the climate warms were tipping points for the Western Arctic herd. And he used photographs of dead caribou found in iced-over sites to illustrate his point; ice created by winter rains is known to lock away the food that the animals eat.

In years with a lot of icing events, the caribou “were often skinny by the end of winter,” he said. “I think there was plenty of food under the snow for the caribou to eat, because in years when icing didn’t seem bad, caribou were in good shape.”

Wilbur Howarth of Noorvik, a member of the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council, backed up Dau’s assessment.

“I’ve seen it. In November. I don’t like rain because we’re so far out there and it freezes, and the caribou are almost starving,” he said. “The climate change is a big factor to not only our caribou in our region, but all the mammals, the fish, what’s going on right now.”

Winter is not the only season in which warming has created problems for the Western Arctic herd, Dau said. The summer insect season appears to have been extended by two to three weeks, meaning more harassment, more obstacles for the animals as they try to eat and put on fat and more chances that mother-calf pairs get separated, he said.

Climate change can feed into other negative forces, Dau, Fuller and Johnson said. Spread of woody shrubs onto tundra terrain not only displaces the lichen, mosses and other tundra plants that caribou eat, it draws moose and other wood-chomping animals, as well as the wolves and bears that prey on them.

Even if the widespread declines are unrelated to climate change or human activity and are instead natural fluctuations from which caribou can recover, the herds will need access to their full habitat and range if they are to do so, Dau said. “I think the critical resource to ensure the long-term sustainability of caribou is space,” he said.

The trend in Alaska, however, is in the other direction. Within the space that major caribou herds use, development exists, is spreading or is proposed to spread.

The Porcupine herd famously crowds into the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for calving and for summer insect relief. That area has long been proposed for oil development, and leases were sold there at the end of the Trump administration. However, actual exploration work is on hold.

The Central Arctic herd shares territory with existing oil fields, and that oil development is slated to spread as Santos prepares to build the Pikka project near the Colville River Delta.


The Teshekpuk herd is named for the vast Teshekpuk Lake, the North Slope’s largest lake. Along the shores of that lake, which is within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A, those caribou gather to give birth to and nurture their young. But the northeastern section of the NPR-A is increasingly being developed for oil production. ConocoPhillips’ huge Willow project, being built in the region, in particular is seen by some as a threat to the Teshekpuk herd. “The Project’s impacts to caribou and subsistence harvesting of caribou, particularly associated with roads and pipelines, has been consistently identified as a key concern by the community of Nuiqsut, which relies heavily on caribou for their sustenance and is located closest to the Project,” said last year’s Bureau of Land Management record of decision giving the Biden administration’s go-ahead for Willow development.

For the Western Arctic herd’s habitat, the main development that is looming is the proposed 211-mile road that would provide access to the remote Ambler mining district in Arctic Northwest Alaska. The Ambler Access Project would enable commercial mining at multiple sites along its corridor, resulting in more truck traffic and more habitat fragmentation across the Western Arctic herd’s range, Dau said.

Roads have been found to affect caribou movement across North America and in Alaska in particular. Recent research by Johnson and her colleagues found negative reactions among the Central Arctic herd to North Slope oilfield traffic, and past research has shown that animals in the Western Arctic herd have trouble crossing the 52-mile road that connects the Red Dog mine to its Chukchi Sea port.

Dau brought up what he said was another development threat to Alaska’s caribou: the Bureau of Land Management’s possible cancellation of protections for 28 million acres of wildlife habitat.

The proposal is to end what are known as D-1 designations, so named for a provision in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, that he said were established to prevent development from harming subsistence harvests of wild foods.

The proposal was launched at the end of the Trump administration; that administration had already removed D-1 protections from some other lands in Alaska. Removal of the designation would allow mining and other development to proceed. After President Joe Biden took office, the Department of the Interior paused the process, citing some legal deficiencies.

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, are strong advocates for removal of D-1 designations from the 28 million acres, as proposed by former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Murkowski and Sullivan, in a statement, called the D-1 protections “outdated” barriers to what should be multiple uses of those lands. But numerous tribes and environmental groups are urging the Biden administration’s Department of the Interior to keep the protections in place.

Dau urged caution in any future development decisions.


“Regardless of whether these declines are natural or if they’re manmade, I can’t recall a time when it’s been more important to protect caribou and their habitat than right now,” he said.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.