The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is on the move in the Northwest Arctic, with eager hunters taking aim, ready to stock up for winter. But the odds are stacked against hunters, and caribou, for several reasons.
Last week, area biologist Jim Dau, who has been studying the herd for more than a quarter-century, said the number of caribou at Onion Portage recently was the lowest he'd ever seen.
An initial pulse, perhaps the lead pack, went through that area a few weeks ago but since then caribou have dried up. It's the same scenario as last fall. And when the big numbers hit last year, they were off their usual course.
Dau and his field crew were up at Onion Portage for two weeks recently, studying and collaring caribou.
"We went six days straight and saw one group of eight bulls heading the wrong direction," Dau said last week. "That would have been unheard of even just five years ago."
Last year around this time, Dau and his collaring crew got skunked one day. This year, they went six days with no caribou.
Hunters are cautioned to be patient when it comes to taking aim, to make sure they let the leaders pass. That's something locals already know but it can be difficult to tell if a group of caribou is the lead pack. And with the animals making their migration into the region later and later, hunters are getting restless.
Last week, caribou were crossing above Kiana, Dau said.
"People tend to get really worked up when the first few caribou cross but sometimes that doesn't mean there are big numbers crossing," Dau said. "People are so desperate for caribou, they are such an important resource out here, that even a few caribou really get people worked up."
The herd's movement patterns may be unusual but they're all within the range of variability, Dau said.
"But I can tell you unequivocally that this year was the worst that I've experienced at Onion Portage," Dau said. "I think it's probably a forewarning of what's coming."
The herd is less than half the size it was a decade ago and hunters are starting to feel that, he added. The last official count in 2013 put the herd at 235,000 animals. It peaked at 490,000 in 2003.
"I don't see any indication that this herd is bouncing back," Dau said. "I've been telling people that it looks to me like things are going to get worse before they get better."
Through the Noatak drainage, the Kelly River and the Wulik River near Kivalina, high concentrations of caribou used to be common around this time of year but that's not the case these days.
"Three things are conspiring, making it difficult for all hunters ... and those are numbers, timing of migration and just more constrained spatial distribution of caribou," Dau said.
The seemingly erratic patterns in movement could be due in part to warmer temperatures on the North Slope. The herd is less likely to move south until the cold sets in farther north.
"The temperature and the presence of snow affects caribou movement but I think there are other things going on too that we don't fully understand," Dau said.
Letting the lead group pass through to establish a trail is nothing new for local residents, but when hunters from Outside are flown in by commercial guiding outfits, they want to get their money's worth, so when they see caribou, they take them.
"These guys are businessmen, they want to do a good job for their clients, and so they drop hunters off on those early groups, and that's what's frustrating for local people," Dau said.
The low numbers are prompting local agencies to ask hunters to minimize their harvest, especially when it comes to taking cows. Before now, harvest rates weren't necessarily affecting the herd's population but with the most recent count, the harvestable surplus of caribou is getting critically low.
"This is affecting all of us," Dau said.
On a positive note, the caribou that Dau did see on his most recent field trip were fat and healthy.
"They're in excellent shape this year," he said.
Up on the North Slope near Anaktuvuk Pass, local hunters are also having caribou concerns. Hunters flown in by commercial guiding outfits, according to Anaktuvuk Pass residents, are intercepting the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd, which has a population of about 55,000 according to a 2011 census.
Planes carrying hunters from Outside are buzzing the herd, causing the animals to scatter and turn away from their traditional route, said Homer Mekiana, a hunter in Anaktuvuk Pass. Visiting hunters also are not letting the leaders of the herd pass by, he added.
"We've been suffering for the past couple of years," Mekiana said last week.
Since August, Mekiana said, he's seen planeloads of hunters arriving in Anaktuvuk only to depart days later with sacks full of caribou.
"That's our food," he said. "We've been hurting for the last few years. People keep saying we need to talk with the sport hunters but they don't care about our traditions; they just care about money."
While the herd makes its way south closer to the village and local hunters, it is spooked when it reaches the commercial camps, he added. That sends the caribou northwest and farther out of range.
"Some were fortunate enough to get some of the Western Arctic Herd south of here but not many," he added.
And as the Teshekpuk herd moves farther away, that means more traveling for local hunters to catch up with it, which means more time and more fuel.
"Some can't afford to miss work and can't afford to pay for gas," Mekiana said.
Letting the lead group pass through would help keep the rest on the right path, Mekiana said.
"When you go after the first caribou, they sense something ... and it's diverting the herd back up north," he said. "I just wish we could get caribou. That's what we really need."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.