KENAI - Drivers should exercise extra caution over the next few weeks as caribou crossings are starting to become a common occurrence on several central Kenai Peninsula roadways.
"This is the time of year they start moving," said Jeff Selinger, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
The caribou are hoofing it to get from areas where they spend the winters, such as around Brown's Lake, Skilak Loop and the Moose River Flats, to their spring calving grounds primarily south of Soldotna.
"The peak of calving is around the third week of May so this is a typical movement pattern. They used to calf around the Marathon Road near the airport, but they shifted a few years ago over to the Marathon gas fields south of Kalifornsky Beach Road," Selinger said.
Constantly moving and shifting, it is difficult to exactly predict the caribou's migration movements from day to day, but they seem to show up in some places more frequently than others.
Selinger said the areas where the caribou seem to turn up regularly include the Kenai flats area off Bridge Access Road; off Kalifornsky Beach Road between Bridge Access and Cannery roads; and off the Kenai Spur Highway between Kenai and Soldotna.
"So people should be on the lookout. They tend to bolt across the highway, and where there is one, there's usually more," Selinger said.
The caribou that are commonly seen around the Kenai area are known as the Kenai Lowlands herd, a group made up of roughly 80 to 100 adult animals, according to Selinger. This is a healthy, reasonably stable herd that contains some of the bigger caribou on the peninsula. The caribou that make up the Kenai Lowlands herd are products of the 1965-1966 caribou reintroduction efforts.
"In '65 there were 15 caribou released in the Mystery Creek area, three males and 12 females. In '66 there were 29 additional caribou released at Watson Lake, three males and 26 females. The Kenai Lowland herd and the Kenai Mountains herd grew from these releases," he said.
While sighting caribou can be a special treat for locals and tourists alike, Selinger had some recommendations for keeping people and animals safe this time of year.
"Caribou are under enough stress before and during the calving process, so while pet dogs shouldn't be allowed to run loose year-round, people should really take precautions to not let their dogs loose while caribou and moose are calving. This is especially important from May to August so the calves have chance at life," he said.
For motorists, Selinger said it's common for people to pull over to take pictures when seeing them on the side of the road, but caution should be exercised when doing so. Wildlife watchers shouldn't lock up their brakes when seeing caribou on the side of the road. Rather they should slow down, signal and then pull all the way over onto the shoulder. People also should stay in their vehicles, and if they must get out, they should be extra cautious when exiting and re-entering their vehicle.
"It's OK to watch them and enjoy caribou, but give them plenty of space. Never approach them, even when taking pictures," he said.
Approaching caribou can be dangerous, since they could flee into the road to get away, potentially causing an accident. Also, caribou may defend themselves or other herd members.
People also should never try to feed the animals.
Caribou are the most abundant big game animal in Alaska, and although not the largest member of the deer family - a title reserved for moose - they are the only deer in which both males and females can carry antlers.
For more information on caribou, visit the Wildlife Notebook page of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Web site at http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/pubs/notebook/biggame/caribou.php.