Declining Western Arctic Caribou Herd Sparks Discussion of Future Hunting Restrictions

One of Alaska’s largest caribou herds is shrinking, prompting hunters and conservationists to consider recommending hunting restrictions.

The population of the western Arctic caribou herd has fallen to approximately 188,000 animals, reflecting a 23% decrease over the past two years. according to the Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game. The estimate increased from 259,000 caribou in 2017 to 244,000 in 2019.

“To go even further, about 60 animals per day die,” explains Tom Gray, member of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. “This drop is huge. If this happens again in two years, we’re going to really panic. “

As caribou populations swing up and down, “it’s always hard to see their numbers decrease,” said Fish and Game wildlife biologist Alex Hansen, who presented the new photographic census data to the task force. this week.

On Wednesday, task force members unanimously decided to change the herd management status from “declining conservative” to “declining conservative” to reflect the declining population. – a decision which could lead to more hunting restrictions in the future.

Under current restrictions, in parts of the Northwestern Arctic, particularly in Game Management Unit 23, residents of Alaska are allowed to harvest five bulls or calves at any time of the year. year, while the harvest of cows is limited to a seven-month season. Non-resident hunters can harvest one bull per year from August to the end of September.

The new management status could result in a ban on the harvest of calves, additional limits on the harvest of cows for residents and the closure of the hunt for non-residents. None of the restrictions come into effect automatically, but interested groups can recommend the changes to the Federal Subsistence Board and the Alaska Board of Game.

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Declining herd

The impacts of the changes on the herd are being felt throughout Northwestern Alaska, where residents have hunted caribou for thousands of years and continue to depend on animals for their livelihood needs.

Crystal Johnson of Kiana said her youngest son wanted to catch his first caribou last year and his family “spent a lot of time” hunting the river, but to no avail.

“We haven’t seen a single caribou,” she said at a Federal Subistence Board meeting in November. “We had a really tough winter because we didn’t fill our freezer with caribou meat.

The population of the western Arctic caribou herd began to decline in early 2003 and, with the exception of a slight increase in 2017, has declined since. Additionally, game managers reported that the survival of adult females was low: the percentage of cows that survived on average over the period 2017-2020 was 73%, which is lower than a long-term average. by 81%.

Some possible factors contributing to the population decline include increased predation, hunting pressures and changing weather conditions.

“In my opinion, this seems like the classic death of a thousand cuts,” Hansen said at the Western Arctic Caribou Working Group meeting. “We have a lot of things against us and we are working to figure everything out. “

Deeper snow and changing weather conditions can lead to animal deaths, Hansen added.

“We’re not seeing anything drastic right now, in terms of mass mortality events,” he said, “but we are seeing changes in migrations that are putting caribou in different places. “

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Late migration

In Buckland, caribou usually arrive in mid-September, but this year the herd was still late.

“It is now November 17th and the caribou still haven’t arrived in our area,” Sherry Swan said at the livelihood council meeting last month. “Caribou are our main source of food – we depend on them for our survival. My main concern is that our people will start to go hungry if no action is taken. “

In 2020, the first caribou with a GPS collar did not cross the Kobuk River until November, which was the last first crossing since 2010, according to Fish and Game and the National Park Service. That fall, the only community in Northwestern Alaska to harvest caribou was Noatak, the Northwestern Arctic Regional Advisory Council reported.

Within 10 years, the first animal passage was delayed by two months, “which is just an incredible change,” Kyle Joly, Park Service wildlife biologist, said this week.

Late migration could also affect cow mortality.

Johnson said last month that resident hunters still try to let cows and calves pass to protect the health of the herd, but when the caribou arrive in their area in late October, the bulls are already in heat, resulting in their meat has a strong smell and flavor.

Joly agrees this week: “These people who all wanted to take big bulls are now going to be faced with horny and smelly animals and they are going to want to switch to cows. … The timing of migration is a really important part when we think about what to do in crop management. “

One of the main factors slowing the herd’s migration for nearly a month is the route to the Red Dog mine, Joly said.

The caribou “really have a hard time trying to move by road,” Joly said, showing animated movement patterns recorded by the National Park Service. “One of the most obvious impacts we see on caribou migration is this route. “

Depending on food availability, escaping predators or looking for better terrain or weather conditions can also cause caribou to change their migration patterns, Joly said.

“A drop in temperature and a dump of snow really pushes the caribou and they can go very, very far really fast during these episodes,” he said. “If they encounter better ground, less snow, better forage, they will slow down. These are important implications of climate change, as we are seeing much warmer temperatures and much later snowfall in the fall. “

This year biologists saw the caribou slow down because “they didn’t want to cross with all that volume and power of ice going down the river,” Joly said.

Northwestern Arctic subsistence hunters also raised concerns with the Livelihood Council last month that visiting hunters flying small planes close to the ground could affect caribou movements.

“Air hunters divert migration before they reach here,” said Eugene Wesley, a subsistence fisherman and hunter from Kivalina. “They fly miles before where the migration reaches us, and that diverts the road.”

Several sport hunters told the council that the correlation between aircraft and herd behavior is unproven and that various factors can affect the weather and migration patterns of caribou, including climate change and hunter activity. local.

“There is no scientific study to support that airplanes have an impact on the migration of caribou,” said Adam Owen of Fairbanks.

Joly said this week that biologists don’t see the long-term effects of sport hunting on migration patterns, but for hunters, even a small unrecorded deviation that “lasted eight or 16 hours and traveled a few kilometers. “would be enough to ruin their hunt.

Herd management

The first opportunity for the new management recommendations to be submitted to the Board of Game would be to submit them before November 1, 2022, for the agenda change request. Regular cycle proposals submitted to the board would be due at the end of April 2023.

Hansen said state game managers might find it difficult to make a decision on harvest restrictions because reports of harvests in the area are limited: fish and game catch only a small percentage of harvest because the majority of hunters do not have a license, he explained. .

“We realize that the permit requirement is quite new and we will continue to work with hunters and communities to improve compliance,” he said. “The people of Northwestern Alaska are heavily dependent on caribou, and reporting their catches each year is a simple way to keep the herd viable for their children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile, the Federal Subistence Board has scheduled a meeting on wildlife regulation in April. Council is already considering considering closing caribou hunting for people living outside of range.

Hansen said the hunting closures for non-residents would strictly target bulls and not be enough to bring about a significant change. He added that a reduction in the cow harvest may be needed in the future as cows are the engines of the population.

Members of the working group discussed a suggestion to further limit the cow harvest for residents, but no recommendations came out of the meeting.

Caroline Cannon urged the task force to spend more time observing the herd and making their recommendations. She said it’s important to remember that subsistence users off the road network depend on the harvest, especially during the pandemic.

William Bernhardt agrees: “I think we’re getting into this a bit too quickly. I think by putting something like that on the floor – trying to put that recommendation – you take the food off the tables of the locals.

Other members of the working group called for a more urgent response.

“We’re getting to the point where we have to be careful,” Gray said. “What is the reality of this herd that survives if we lose 40,000 animals a year now?” Be careful, guys. This herd has been there for thousands of years. Let’s not kill him in a few.

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