Alaska’s largest caribou herd, the Western Arctic Herd, numbered about 325,000 animals as of July 2011, according to a census recently completed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
According to a release from the ADF&G, this represents a five percent decline since the last census was completed in July 2009, and a continuation of the four to six percent annual decline since it last peaked at 490,000 caribou in 2003. This trend is consistent, the department stated, with annual estimates of increasing adult cow mortality and declining calf survival.
“Caribou populations fluctuate naturally in response to a variety of factors,” Jim Dau said.
Dau is a ADF&G biologist who has worked with the herd for almost 25 years.
“Despite this decline in numbers, health assessments conducted by the department and reports from hunters indicate that the body condition of caribou from this herd generally remains good,” he said. “All in all, while herd size has declined, it’s still very large and its sustainability is not in question.”
The Western Arctic Herd ranges over a 140,000 square-mile area bounded by the Arctic Ocean, the lower Yukon River and the trans-Alaska pipeline. About 40 communities and 13,000 people live within this range. For the indigenous people of these communities, the herd is both a vital link to their cultural heritage and a staple source of food. The WAH is also important to visiting resident and nonresident hunters, the release stated, and is an important source of income for commercial operators that provide hunting and transport services.
While the herd is still very large, it may become necessary to reduce harvests in the future if this decline continues.
“A plan is in place if it’s necessary to limit harvest opportunities, thanks to the efforts of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group,” Dau said. “We just spent over two and a half years updating a management plan that outlines how we would recommend restrictions in the future should that become necessary.”
The work group includes subsistence users, other Alaskan hunters, reindeer herders, hunting guides, transporters and conservationists. It is supported by state and federal resource management agencies. The group meets once each year, with additional sub-committee meetings as needed.
The next census is scheduled for 2013.