Western Arctic Caribou Herd Continues To Decline

The state’s largest caribou herd continues to decline. The latest population survey estimates the western Arctic herd at 325,000 animals. State Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau in Kotzebue says the latest number shows continuation of a decline which began in 2003, when the herd numbered 500,000.  Dau says given the size and massive range of western Arctic caribou, it’s hard to know what’s driving the reduction, but he has some ideas, including winter rain.

Dau says another likely factor is predation.  Meanwhile the stable harvest of between 14-16,000 caribou per year by people, represents an increasing percentage of the population.  New advisory recommendations from a working group include incremental hunting restrictions and increased monitoring if the caribou population decline persists. Dau says the herd’s future is uncertain in light of its history.  Back in the early 1970’s, he says it went from 242,000 animals down to 75,000.

Dau says federal surveys have shown a decline in overall coverage of lichen, and increases in grasses and shrubs on the caribou’s winter range. He says the extent and quality of summer range lichen remains good.

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