Caribou's late arrival may cost calves' lives

Survival rates plunge when herd reaches ANWR grounds late

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2001

BARROW - Time may be running out for calves of the Porcupine caribou herd, which makes the journey from northern Canada to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge every spring.

Darius Kassi, conservation officer for the Vuntut Gwitch'in First Nation in the northern Yukon Territory, said the caribou are late again this year getting to their calving grounds on Alaska's coastal plain.

If the weather doesn't warm and they don't get moving, the caribou could get caught in the same circumstances as last year when the death rate among calves almost doubled. The approximately 15,000 calves that died in their first month last year represented a mortality rate of 44 percent.

When last counted in 1998, the herd numbered about 129,000 animals.

The herd recently was still south of the Porcupine River, which was not yet safe for crossing, Kassi said.

If the cows are delayed too long, they won't make it to the calving grounds before giving birth, leading to the death of many calves, Kassi said.

"If the cows drop their calves now, the wolves, wolverines, the foxes and bears are just going to have a field day with the young ones," Kassi said.

Once in ANWR's coastal plain, the calves are less susceptible to predators. The cows also find much-needed nutrients that are not available in the forage south of the treeline.

Calves born south of the Porcupine are often not able to cross the river safely, and are abandoned by their mothers, he said.

"I witnessed it last year," Kassi said. "Very few of them (calves) were crossing the Porcupine because it was too dangerous; too wide, too deep and the current was too fast. ... I drove up and down the river and I saw calves just sitting there, sometimes two by themselves. It looks like it is going to be another bad year."

If the herd can get across the river and close to the grounds before calving, to the foothills inside the Vuntut and Ivvavik national parks, chances for calf survival increase greatly, he said.

The herd has been known to move from as far south as the Dempster Highway area to the coastal plain in 10 days.

Don Russell of the Canadian Wildlife Service said there is still time for the herd to move. In recent years, June 2 has represented the peak calving time. But last year it wasn't until June 7.

Old Crow residents who recently watched the ice begin flowing saw a cow caribou caught on an ice flow, drifting down river.

"She was in the middle of the flow, struggling to make it to shore but she did not make it," Kassi said.

As the cow slipped into the river, she was covered by drifting ice.

"People had to turn their heads when they saw that cow fall into the river," he said.

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