The Arctic Sounder

Caribou arrive in the Northwest Arctic region

Their arrival was months late but residents still anticipated them eagerly: caribou came to the Kotzebue area this month.

“It’s been good,” hunter Cyrus Harris said. “It’s good to see caribou so we get caribou on the table.”

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd has been declining for years, and the migration patterns of the animals have been changing. In several locations in Northwest Alaska, caribou have been arriving later and later in the season.

[Western Arctic Caribou Herd keeps shrinking, 2023 census shows]

After summering near Point Hope, the herd — which is still one of the biggest in Alaska — usually moves south. Once rivers and lakes begin to freeze, the caribou cross the water and come to Kotzebue, where they linger for several weeks. Then they continue toward Buckland and Deering, the southern side of their migration.

But this year, animals went from Point Hope to Kivalina and then back up north, said Steve Oomittuk from Point Hope, who chairs the North Slope Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.

As a result, while in normal years Kotzebue residents used to be able to harvest caribou in September, these years the animals don’t pass the town until late fall or early winter.


Ice conditions are one of the reasons for the caribou’s late migration, said Thomas Baker, who is the new Representative for the House District 40 and the chair of the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.

“There’s still open water right in front of Kotzebue, along Front Street. If you were to look out 10, 15, 20 years ago, it might have been completely frozen by mid-October. If you went out there 50 years ago it would have been almost completely frozen by the end of September,” he said. “Things are happening later. And these animals are crossing the ice — this was about the earliest that they’ve been able to cross because now it’s actually solid.”

Friday last week, people in Kotzebue finally started seeing caribou — hundreds of them ― crossing the Kotzebue Sound north of town, coming from the Noatak riverside, Baker said.

While it was not feasible to get across the Kobuk Lake in all directions, the animals came just a couple of miles north of Kotzebue, and people were able to snowmachine close enough to harvest them. As of Monday, the caribou were lingering behind town In the tundra near the winter trail.

“People have been successful, going out in small groups hunting together and picking out the animals that they want to harvest,” Baker said.

Harris manages Maniilaq Association’s Hunter Support Program and said that there has been enough meat to provide for Elders in the long-term care facilities across the region.

But with animals coming this late in the season, hunters have to look out for and avoid bulls who are in a rut and whose meat is not edible, Harris said. Some hunters end up hunting cows, which is not advisable, given the decline of the herd.

“Unfortunately, there are some cows that are being taken,” he said. “With the declining herd, I try to focus myself on the younger bulls.”

Baker said that after the last Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council meeting, locals and staff from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and National Park Service have been communicated about the status of the herd. They’ve been also putting out flyers about how hunters can discern a male from a female caribou.

He said it’s a push “for letting the cows live so that the cows are able to breed the future stock of the herd.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.