The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is preemptively canceling the Nelchina caribou hunt, one of the most popular hunts in the state, citing low population estimates for the herd.
The decision affects the Nelchina herd, which migrates through a swath of Alaska partially accessible by roads, including the Denali Highway that runs from Cantwell to Paxson. The game management unit includes several roadways crisscrossing between Alaska population centers, drawing hunters from the Interior and Southcentral regions.
The state regulates a unique hunt in the unit covering much of the Nelchina herd’s range, allowing a high number of residents the opportunity to harvest one caribou in exchange for forgoing other permitted hunts. In what is roughly the big-game equivalent of the Kenai River dipnet fishery, the Tier 1 caribou hunts unleash an annual armada of RVs, four-wheelers, boats and even bicycles on the area for a few weeks almost every autumn.
“For conservation of the herd, no state Nelchina caribou hunts will occur in fall or winter for the 2023-24 season,” Fish and Game said Friday in a public advisory.
It has been a bad few years for the herd. Since 2021, intense winters in the region have kept down survival rates.
“Overwinter mortality of adults and calves was high, resulting in a population decline and low recruitment of 2021 calves into the population,” the department wrote.
Fall 2022 brought swollen creeks and river crossings that impeded migration, and another winter of deep snow followed. Of the calves born in 2022 that managers tracked with radio collars, 87% died, according to the department.
The state’s target population range for the herd is 35,000 to 40,000, enough for a harvestable surplus of 600 to 1,000 animals. According to the department advisory, managers estimated 17,433 animals in the herd last fall, well below the target threshold even before the ensuing harsh winter. Officials will survey the herd’s size and composition in July to guide decisions about next year’s hunt.
Residents who applied to hunt Nelchina caribou in Game Management Unit 13 under the Tier 1 and Community Subsistence Hunt programs are released from the conditions of their permits, according to Fish and Game.