This fall, hunters harvested about 42 caribou in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge's Nushagak Peninsula hunt. But that's just a small fraction of what biologists say could be harvested there, so managers and residents are looking at ways to increase the take.
Refuge biologist Andy Aderman said the Nushagak population is probably doing as well as it ever has done.
"Our survey back in June of this year found over 1,300 caribou. Realistically, there's probably closer to 1,400 or even more than 1,400 caribou. We think the optimal population down there for that size of an area is 750, so just taking the 1,300 number, we're over 500 caribou above that goal. We need to harvest a lot more caribou down there if we can."
The last time the population got this large, it was followed by a sharp drop-off. Refuge biologist Pat Walsh said the drop-off then was related to an unstable age structure. It took some time for the population to rebound, and refuge staff and residents on the Nushagak Peninsula Caribou Planning Committee want to avoid seeing that happen again.
Walsh said the area likely has a limited amount of habitat for the caribou to depend on. "In the long run, protecting subsistence opportunities requires good management," he said.
But the largest-ever Nushagak caribou harvests were in the 120-range in the early 2000s, so finding a way to hit 500 could be difficult.
To start, the committee agreed to request a special action from the federal subsistence board that would increase the limit from two to three caribou per hunter for the rest of the winter.
"That's in an effort to harvest more caribou from that herd," Aderman said after the meeting.
A decision is likely in the next couple of weeks. Because it's a special action, and would just be in effect temporarily, the federal subsistence board can consider it outside of the usual process for longer term proposals.
The committee also discussed other things that would help increase the harvest this year. Some are out of human control, like having good enough weather for snowmachining. But the committee did agree to encourage more people to take advantage of the designated program.
Committee members also discussed encouraging people to take advantage of the designated hunter program to try and boost the harvest this winter. Through that program, Aderman said, someone can hunt on behalf of another person.
"What they need to do though is have the person they're going to hunt for get their caribou permits and then give them to that hunter," Aderman said. "And then that hunter can go down and hunt caribou for himself or for another person or both."
With two sets of permits in hand, the hunter can also have two limits of caribou in their possession -- currently that would be four, rather than two.
The committee also discussed opening up the hunt to a larger area and allowing more people to participate.
Right now, the hunt is limited to residents from six Bristol Bay villages -- Togiak, Twin Hills, Manokotak, Dillingham, Aleknagik and Clark's Point.
One possible change, which could come from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game rather than federal managers, could open up a hunt beyond the current boundaries. That would likely be open to all Alaskans, rather than residents of just those villages. But that is only likely to happen if the committee recommends it, and no decision was made at the December meeting.
The committee tentatively agreed to meet in early 2016 to discuss that idea and others. Some longer term proposals, which the federal subsistence board is set to consider in April, will also likely be discussed then.