The harvestable surplus of caribou in the giant Western Arctic Herd is rapidly disappearing, and stakeholders across the Arctic are figuring out how to react.
The animals in one of North America's largest caribou herds are an important resource for subsistence hunters and their families throughout the northern regions of Alaska, and they provide a source of income for guides and outfitters who bring hunters up from the Lower 48 to get their fill. But something's got to give.
The harvestable surplus is the number of caribou that hunters can take without compromising the long-term sustainability of the herd. This year, that surplus is estimated to be about 13,000 caribou. If that number falls below 12,000, according to the state Board of Game, hunting restrictions for nonresident hunters, and predator control methods will be enacted. The Board of Game has approved, based on data from the state's subsistence division, 8,000 to 12,000 caribou for subsistence users. If the harvestable surplus goes below 8,000, further restrictions will be put in place.
"Our actual harvest may exceed the harvestable surplus this year (for) the first time," said Kotzebue-based biologist Jim Dau, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Herd size down 52%
Stakeholders from Western Alaska, the Arctic and Interior regions of the state gathered recently for the annual Western Arctic Caribou Herd working group meeting to discuss proposals on how to curb the decline.
The group will then present the recommendations to the Board of Game next year. Presentations by biologists, students, elders and others with a vested interest in the herd spoke to the eager audience last week in Anchorage.
Projections for the herd, which has been in a steady decline for about a decade, show that numbers are expected to keep going down. The last official count in 2013 showed the herd at 235,000. It peaked in 2003 at 490,000. That's a 52 percent decline in a decade.
Caribou herds are known to fluctuate sharply, and the Western Arctic herd was as small as 75,000 animals in 1976, according to Fish and Game. It then began a steady increase in population before starting to shrink seven years ago.
From 2003 to 2011, the herd population dropped 4 to 6 percent a year.
'Worse before it gets better'
In recent years, the rate of decline has been higher and the herd is estimated to drop around 15 percent annually for the next few years. The next census is due in 2015.
"Based on the data right now, it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Dau. "Everybody wants to know why are the numbers going down? And basically, the short answer is, we've got more adults dying than we have cows surviving."
Weather, climate change, predation and hunting are all potential contributing factors, but scientists don't have an exact cause. Calf production is not going down, though the calf survival rate is, Dau told the working group.
"There's nowhere for the herd to go but down as long as cow mortality is exceeding calf survival," Dau said.
The last few winters have seen little snow on the animals' range, which has been good for mortality rates, but a few bad years with heavy icing or lots of snow can do much more damage than a few easy years can do good, Dau said. He added that while he doesn't have hard data to back it up, he thinks that the change in weather started the initial decline. And while the Western Arcic herd size is waning, the number of predators has gone up.
The caribou herd in general is comprised of fat, healthy animals with no signs of chronic disease or parasites.
Several state and federal agencies, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service and the Bureau of Land Management, monitor the herd.
Because the herd is below 265,000 animals, it is considered at the low end of the "conservative" management and harvest levels and hunters are being asked to voluntarily reduce the number of cows taken.
"We've been in liberal management for a long, long time," said Dau, adding the move into conservative management is recent.
Currently, the management plan suggests the ideal bull-to-cow ratio is four bulls per 10 cows. That ratio is an important number when considering the harvestable surplus, he added. If the ratio drops below 4-to-10, the bull harvested would potentially be restricted.
"If this trend continues ... we could be taking 30 or 40 percent of our bulls out of this herd every year in a very short amount of time, and that's not sustainable," Dau said.
The working group proposed limiting the season on cows, restricting the taking of calves, restricting non-resident bull harvest and nixing the nonresident cow harvest as ways to curb the crash.
Over the last 15 years, harvest rates have remained consistent, with no increase in the number of hunters. Around 95 percent of caribou harvested each year are taken by subsistence users. (Subsistence users are defined in this case as anyone who lives within the range of the herd.)
"One thing I've heard in the all the villages is that we need to close (the hunt) to sport hunters," Dau said. "If we do that, we cut off 5 percent of the harvest and that's very little," Dau said.
Where Outside hunters set up
Hunter conflict between residents and nonresidents is highest in Unit 23 — an area in the Northwest Arctic — where most of the caribou are taken.
Near Noatak, hunters from Outside are flown in and set up camp on the Noatak River in spots that divert the herd away from town and away from local subsistence users, said Noatak's Enoch Mitchell.
"They couldn't pass because there were hunters on the other side of the river," Mitchell said. "It's affecting the village quite a bit. They could hunt above where we hunt and then the caribou would pass by us, too."
He added that the herd is coming later each year and crossing farther north, forcing local hunters to travel longer distances.
"We have to do something now before they get depleted," Mitchell said.
A lot of people in Noatak have freezers without caribou these days, Mitchell said, adding that he went around to each household to ask how much caribou they had and most said none.
"We've been waiting for the snow to come so we can go out and hunt," he said. Mitchell is still hopeful that community members will get what they need this year.
Up on the North Slope, the concerns around potential hunting restrictions while maintaining a healthy population are prompting conversations across the region, said Quiyaan Harcharek, who was at the meeting on behalf of the North Slope Borough.
"Caribou is one of the main food sources, especially in the smaller communities," he said. "The way we hunt, we only take what we need. Nonresident hunters don't make up a large percentage but cutting the nonresident hunt before the resident hunt will show good faith to the communities that the state and feds are taking avenues necessary before imposing (restrictions) on our communities.
The working group will take its recommendation for regulation changes to the state Board of Game at its meeting in March.
Those interested in learning more about what is being proposed can go to a meeting of Kotzebue Sound, Kivalina/Noatak and Northern Seward Peninsula Fish & Game Advisory Committees on Jan. 6 in Kotzebue at the Northwest Arctic Borough building.
This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.