Hunt of growing Fortymile caribou herd will end Saturday

A winter hunt targeting one of Interior Alaska's largest and perhaps most accessible caribou herds — one buffeted by big population swings over the years — will close on Saturday.

A registration hunt for Fortymile Herd caribou on lands accessible from the Steese Highway and Chena Hot Springs Road within Game Management Units 20B and 25C will close at 11:59 p.m.

"The Fortymile caribou harvest has been steady during the first month of the season and we expect to meet the … harvest quota by this weekend," said Jeff Gross, the Tok area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The overall quota for the winter hunt that can run through March is 298 animals; by contrast, about 75 percent of the annual quota comes from a fall hunt in September.

The 50,000-animal Fortymile herd migrates every year through an area north of Fairbanks. Like other migratory herds, it's named after its calving area, in this case the Fortymile River near Tok.

It's the only caribou herd in the state that migrates between two road-accessible areas, and game managers are trying to increase the size of the herd, perhaps to as many as 60,000 animals. The total annual quota for the hunt is 1,000 caribou, divided among four zones.

The length of the hunt depends largely on the herd's movements. Some years, when the animals are concentrated near or on easily accessible roadways, it lasts 24 hours.

"If they're gathered close to the highway, it takes very little time," said Cathie Harms, a state biologist based in Glennallen.

Like most Alaska caribou herds, the population of the Fortymile herd tends to yo-yo, depending on an array of factors. It was estimated to number between 200,000 and 500,000 in 1900, Harms said, while acknowledging those early estimates were little more than guesses.

"But we feel confident it's not declining at this point," she said.