Kenai - If hunters don't harvest more caribou in the Killey River area of the Kenai Peninsula, biologists fear the overgrown herd will destroy their range.
The Killey River herd is so far beyond the carrying capacity for the area that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has allowed registration permit hunting in the range, in addition to the regular drawing of 25 permits. The caribou season began Aug. 10 and runs through Sept. 20.
"This time of year, everyone changes from red shirts to camouflage," said Ted Spraker, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
There are currently around 700 animals in the herd, and the region is only able to support a maximum of 500 caribou. Biologists have noticed a decline in the number of surviving calves as well as a decreased weight of those that survived the year.
"Those are two important indicators that are going down. The herd is outgrowing their range," Spraker said. "This is normal of populations. They do not regulate themselves. The amount of habitat sorts it all out. The Killey River herd has produced beyond what the range can withstand."
Because of this overabundance of caribou in the Killey River region, for the second year in a row the department has decided to issue registration permits. These allow for three caribou per hunter, with a maximum of one bull.
The department emphasizes the importance of focusing on cows.
"We need to reduce the number of calves born, to reduce the herd by up to 200 animals, but we need to do it quickly. The herd will destroy the range," said Spraker.
One hundred sixty permits were issued last year, but only six cows were harvested. Spraker said the mistake made was that permits were issued in a lottery. The majority were wasted, according to Spraker, who said the area is very difficult to access without horses.
Last year, those who made it in were successful, but without horses to carry the meat out, it is nearly impossible, unless you are 21 and love pain and agony, Spraker said. The area is part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, as well as being a wilderness area. Therefore, there is no access with ATVs and very limited air access.
Spraker said, a hunter's best bet is crossing Tustumena Lake and following the Emmy Lake Trail into the caribou's range. In the Fox River area, horses are also a definite asset for hauling meat out, since each animal yields anywhere from 100 to 120 pounds of boned-out meat.
The Killey River herd is one of five caribou herds on the peninsula. Three are open to hunting this fall. Permits were available through a lottery-style drawing for all three regions.
The Kenai Mountain herd has around 400 animals, and 250 permits were issued for this season. Each permit allows a hunter one caribou of either gender. According to Spraker, 25 animals were taken last year.
The drawing for hunting on the Fox River herd of 70 animals also allows one kill of either gender, but only 10 permits were issued.