Herd has recovered enough to allow for limited hunting, says Fish and Game, which is accepting applications for the Tier II drawing hunt now online.
The caribou herd on the Northern Alaska Caribou, or NAP, underwent a long decline before the hunting season was eventually closed in 2005. But since then the habitat has recovered, the herd has recovered, and next year some residents will get the chance to hunt them for the first time in a decade. KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more:
KDLG audio transcript: Like many caribou herds, the NAP herd population has seen a history of ups and downs … Fish and Game says the herd peaked at about 20,000 animals in 1899, hit similar levels in the 1940s, and again in 1984. The Department says each high point was followed by a steep decline, including the most recent one. Dave Crowley is the area’s wildlife biologist based in King Salmon:
"The herd increased to a point where the habitat couldn’t sustain them any longer. That’s despite hunting. We had fairly liberal seasons and bag limits. But some of these areas are so remote that we just can’t control the number of animals that are on the ground at those higher densities."
Within a decade the NAP herd was in serious decline, and hunting restrictions were put in place. Fish and Game cites several factors for the decline: one was habitat, and the availability of good forage. The Department noticed that the NAP herd was traveling further north in the winter than usual, eventually competing with the Mulchatna herd. Predators like brown bears, wolves, and eagles took a toll too; in one 1998 study, 35 percent of radio collared calves were killed within a month of birth, mostly due to predation. In the late nineties Fish and Game also discovered some diseases, including pneumonia caused by lungworms.
But the herd has been recovering, and following another survey this fall, Crowley says some of the key indicators biologists measure have improved a lot:
"The current bull-cow ratio is at 38. It got as low as 20 back in the earlier 2000s. So that’s real good, that’s actually above our management objective of 35 bulls per 100 cows. And our calves have improved from seven calves per 100 cows back in 2004; last year we’re at 34, this year around 30 calves per 100."
There are other indicators Crowley saw when he was on the ground taking a closer look:
“Just in handling the caribou, the body condition is much better than it had been. Warble fly infestation is down, and that’s another good indicator of good nutrition. And you know having the caribou population down for some years like that really allows the range to recover.”
The estimated herd size is now around 2700 animals, and while that’s below the objective of 12-15000, Fish and Game says that’s enough to allow for subsistence hunting to occur. A limited number of permits will be issued from a Tier II drawing. Crowley says this kind of permitting is more than just picking names from a hat; the application involves answering some questions:
"Where you spend your time hunting, how many years you’ve hunted on the NAP, where you buy your groceries and your gasoline. Depending on how you answer these questions, it kind of raises you up in the hierarchy or not. So a person like me, you know I’ve been here a few years and have hunted the NAP caribou zero years, I’m going up against people … I helped one gentleman fill out his application the other day, his answer to that question was 50 years."
Applications for the Tier II drawing will be accepted online through December 15. Those who receive a permit will have their first chance in a decade to bag a NAP caribou when the hunt opens next fall.