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The Nelchina guessing game: When will the caribou move, and how far will they go?

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: October 7, 2019
  • Published October 7, 2019

The Nelchina caribou herd is on the move. Caribou season normally ends Sept. 20 in Unit 13 and begins again the third week in October. This season, as in some seasons past, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game extended caribou season until the end of September in an attempt to take a few more animals from a herd that may be out-growing it’s range.

However, there were few hunters that took advantage of those extra 10 days. The word was out that caribou were scarce along the Denali Highway.

Hunters that stuck it out until the last day found good success. The caribou were moving on the 30th. A trip down the Maclaren or into Upper Tangle Lakes would have yielded certain success on that last day.

A drive to Milepost 60 on the 29th saw zero animals. The next day I counted more than 100, all on the move.

What triggers the fall migration of these animals? All studies of the Nelchina caribou and other herds indicate that the fall migration is weather-related. A sudden temperature drop or a substantial snowfall will get the herds moving quickly.

Twenty or 30 miles is nothing to an animal that travels as easily as caribou. A half of a day moving along at 4-5 mph will move a herd from the Alphabet Hills to Paxson Lake.

Friday night saw heavy snow in Isabel Pass and the Donnelly area. There was six inches of new snow on the ground by midnight and it was still snowing hard. That storm, while it may not directly impact the Upper Susitna and northern Talkeetnas, will undoubtedly trigger herd movement.

The question is,how quickly will the herd pass through the Richardson Highway corridor where they are accessible to hunters?

Once caribou are moving, they tend to head toward their destination quite quickly. The winter of 2018 saw the bulk of the Nelchina herd winter in the Mentasta Mountains. Some years they travel into Canada to winter.

Snow cover plays a big role. Caribou dig for lichens, so heavy snow makes feeding difficult.

There have been times in the recent past when Nelchina caribou stayed in the Tangle Lakes area. Low snow and windy conditions kept food accessible. However, lichens, especially in the Upper Tangle Lakes and the Maclaren Desert, are in rough shape. The past couple of warm summers, plus over-grazing, may have inhibited lichen growth.

If the snow comes down in a huge dump this fall, the Nelchina animals will be long gone by the time caribou season reopens Oct. 21. Should the new snow melt and the weather warm, the herd may stop or even back-track a bit. There is a tendency to slow migration during the rut under favorable conditions.

Hunters, keep a watchful eye on the weather. Opening day is a Monday. The highways will be crowded with hunters, but waiting until the following weekend of Oct. 26-27 might be nonproductive.

Remember that larger bulls are not the best-eating in mid-late October. I shot a big bull out of the Porcupine herd on Halloween back in the ’70s while trapping north of the Arctic Circle. That was a big mistake. The meat was inedible, even for my trapping partner and myself -- and we ate anything.

Cows are open to hunt this season. Yearling bulls should be OK, or at least not overly strong. Pick and choose wisely. It makes no sense to have a pretty set of horns and unpalatable meat. One has to boil antlers a long, long time.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commerical fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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