FAIRBANKS — Scott Johnson says he and his moose hunting partners had company as they traveled on the Yukon River last week.
Between Eagle and Circle, they were joined by hundreds of caribou from the Fortymile Herd crossing the Yukon in Alaska for the first time in recent memory.
“The day we were coming out (on Sept. 24) we got to the Seventymile River and there were caribou everywhere,” Johnson said. “There were hundreds of them along a three-mile stretch from the Tatonduk River all the way to the Seventymile.
“They were crossing the river, standing on the river banks, swimming the river, standing on every island,” he said. “It was nuts.”
He recorded the moment with his cellphone camera, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. Johnson has seen caribou along the Yukon before, he said, but never in such numbers.
“We see a couple stragglers every once in a while but nothing like that,” he said.
A spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirmed that a significant number of the herd’s 50,000 animals crossed the Yukon from south to north. It was the first time in decades in Alaska.
Crossing on the U.S. side is a sign that the herd is expanding its range, said Jeff Gross, the agency’s area biologist in Tok.
Residents of Eagle, a community of 86 about 10 miles from the Canada border, saw caribou last week, said longtime resident John Borg.
“They practically came into town,” he said. “People who live about a mile out of town had caribou in their yards.
“I could see them with binoculars going across river just below town,” he said. “It’s been a long time since there’s been caribou in any numbers this close to town.”
Local hunters seized the opportunity. They harvested caribou after they crossed the river from game management unit 20E, which was closed to caribou hunting, to unit 25B, where animals were legal to shoot until the Fish and Game Department issued a closure notice Saturday morning.
The Fortymile hunt along the Taylor Highway in unit 20E had closed because hunters exceeded the fall harvest quota in two days.
“Eagle folks did harvest quite a few caribou,” Borg said. “It wasn’t a slaughter by any means, but people got meat for the winter.
“Very few people from Eagle had gotten caribou before they closed the Fortymile hunt,” he said. “A lot of families are going to be eating a little better than expected this winter. This was a gift. “