The Arctic Sounder

Federal regulators cut Western Arctic caribou harvest limit to 15 animals a year

Subsistence hunters in Northwest Alaska and several North Slope communities are now allowed to hunt only 15 caribou a year – a significant decrease from five animals a day. Non-local hunters are prohibited from hunting caribou in the Northwest Arctic until the herd sufficiently rebounds.

To preserve the declining Western Arctic Caribou Herd, the Federal Subsistence Board during the Wildlife Regulatory Meeting this week reduced the hunting of the herd from five animals a day to 15 a year, with only one of which can be a cow. That closure is in effect in the Northwest Arctic and the western part of the North Slope. Regulators also voted to close caribou hunt in the Northwest Arctic to non-federally qualified subsistence users to reduce pressure on the herd.

The reason for the harvest reduction is the continued decline of the herd, which dropped by another 7% this year, and the low survival rate of adult cows.

A harvest reduction will place pressure on families and communities relying on caribou, said Elizabeth “Liz” Qaulluq Cravalho, vice president of lands at NANA Corp.

In the Northwest Arctic, about 69% of NANA shareholders rely on subsistence foods for 50% or more of their household diet, according to the 2023 NANA survey. With fuel costs ranging from $7 to over $15 per gallon, participating in subsistence activities is expensive. And with the decline of the Western Arctic herd and the change in migration, caribou end up further away from hunters, making the costs for traditional hunting go up.

Despite the residents’ reliance on caribou, harvest reduction is necessary to preserve the herd for the future, Cravalho said.

The harvest limitation for local subsistence hunters adopted by the board is not as drastic as originally proposed: The Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group originally suggested the board limit the hunt across the range of the herd to four animals a year, with only one cow allowed.


Several local subsistence advisory councils suggested changing the annual harvest limit to 15 animals to make sure local families have enough food on the table and enough meat to share with those who can’t hunt.

The regulators noted that while the reduction to 15 animals a year might not necessarily result in a significant harvest reduction, decreasing cow harvest is the most important thing right now to promote herd recovery.

Another modification was to exclude the eastern portion of Unit 26A – in the North Slope, to the west of the Coleville River. One of the reasons for adjusting the area for harvest limitation is that residents in the eastern portion of the North Slope, including Anaktuvuk Pass, harvest caribou from several different herds.

“We probably had the littlest impact in this but the most to lose,” said Brower France with the North Slope Subsistence Regional Advisory Council. “This would have impacted upwards of 7,000 individuals that didn’t need to be impacted.”

The state regulators already adopted a similar proposal in January, limiting local subsistence hunters to 15 animals a year, only one of which can be a cow. However, federal public lands comprise most of the units through which the herd migrates: over 70% of Unit 23 and almost 73% of Unit 26A.

“Aligning the harvestable limit for residents to be uniform on state and federal lands is important to reducing the risk of non-compliance and criminalization of our hunters,” Cravalho said.

Ambler resident Billy Custer who hunts for Elders in his and neighboring villages up and down the Kobuk river said he didn’t believe the harvest reduction would be upheld.

“The proposal about cutting the five a day to 15 a year – it’s not going to work,” he said. “People are still going to get (more caribou). That’s still a little too low.”

Scott Jones, a hunter in Ambler for over 40 years, said that prohibiting harvesting all but one cow will be a regulation hard to follow. He explained that in the last 10 years, caribou have been arriving in the Ambler area late in the season. In late fall, the bulls are in a rut, so their meat is not edible, and hunters have to harvest small bulls or cows, he said.

“It’s a worthy effort, but it’s not practical,” he said. “When it comes down to feeding and your family, or Elders or whatever, when somebody’s out hunting and there’s a cow, you’re gonna bring it home. So it just makes criminals (out of) everybody.”

Limiting nonlocal hunters

The Federal Subsistence Board also unanimously agreed to close Game Unit 23 to non-federally qualified subsistence users from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31. This closure will go away when the herd population rebounds and exceeds 200,000 caribou.

The proposal, put forward by the Northwest Arctic and North Slope Subsistence Regional Advisory councils, is meant to reduce pressure on the herd and provide support for local subsistence hunters.

While the exact causes of the decline are uncertain, reducing human harvest is the most controllable factor, regulators said.

“We still need to understand what is happening with the herd,” Cravalho said. “The closure of this area is important to acknowledge that the herd is in decline. ... We know that we will likely see an increase of potential trespass on our lands, it’s happened in the past, when we see closures, people will wander up onto our property at times, and that’s a concern for us. But I think there’s a greater risk to the herd at this point in time, and we want to see those protections.”

Brower France, the chair of the North Slope Subsistence Regional Advisory Council, said that the fly-in hunters come to the Brooks Range from several locations, including Kotzebue and Coldfoot, and disturb the migration patterns of caribou herds.

“Absolutely none of them are either from up there or utilizing meat as they should,” Brower said, referring to hunters taking the racks and leaving the meat behind. “It’s definitely not good for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.”

He explained that the guides and transporters are dropping the hunters exactly where the animals join for the migration routes and in the areas where the regulators plan to reduce the harvest limits.


“We’re not seeing the fairness. We’re not seeing the subsistence priority,” Brower said. “Get rid of the fly-in hunters before getting into the subsistence hunts.”

Residents in Arctic regions previously testified that sport hunters who fly into the area often don’t follow local conservation practices such as letting the caribou leaders pass so the rest of the herd will follow, not hunting cows in times of low numbers and using all parts of the caribou they harvest.

On the state level, the Board of Game rejected proposals to close the nonresident caribou hunt across the range of the Western herd. Instead, they adopted an amended proposal to open a nonresident drawing hunt with up to 300 permits available, effective in the regulatory year 2025.

Ben Mulligan, Deputy Commissioner with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that the department opposes the closures to nonlocal hunters. He said that similar closures in the recent past led to no change to caribou migration. Local hunters account for approximately 95% of the Western Arctic caribou herd harvest, and the annual nonresident harvest is insignificant, averaging at about 182 caribou of which almost 98% are bulls.

“The removal of primarily bull-focused harvest is unlikely to influence the Western Arctic herd and promote its recovery,” Mulligan said. He added that even after similar limitations for nonlocals, “user conflicts persist and locals have still expressed them as disrupting their hunting activities. It should be noted that these issues persisted even when the herd was close to half a million animals.”

Non-local Alaska residents who want to come home and hunt with relatives won’t have that opportunity, he added.

The board officials said they have a responsibility to provide for a subsistence priority and to ensure that residents have the opportunity to meet their subsistence needs.


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.