This year’s Nelchina caribou herd population is at an unexpected high, and the Department of Fish and Game issued an additional 2,425 hunting permits in an effort to keep the population within a manageable range.
The caribou population has been steadily increasing over the last few decades. Becky Schwanke, an area biologist with Department of Fish and Game says that the count bounced between 40,000 and 44,000 the last few years. And she says they counted over 46,000 animals this year.
“So, this was a little of a surprise,” Schwanke said. “We thought the herd was lower based on last years count but the count this year came out a little higher than we expected.”
Over the last two years Schwanke says the caribou herd has been at peak productivity, with higher numbers of calves being born than she has seen in a long time. And when that happens, it eventually swells the population numbers.
“We had some apparently better than expected survival over the last couple of years in all of our age groups, including our calves,” Schwanke said.
Even though the population boom indicates excellent environmental conditions, there is a limit to the number of animals the ecosystem can hold. Schwanke says that wildlife managers try to keep the population between 35,000 and 40,000. If not, she says they will over-forage and wreak long-term damage on the environment.
“A lot of what happens is there is trampling,” Schwanke said. “There is just too many animals in a small section of space, and so it just tends to result in plants that get damaged for the long term.”
“Lichens are one of those species that gets hurt tremendously in the long term by trampling.”
To deal with the extra animals, Schawanke says the Department of Fish and Game issued extra hunting permits. The Nelchina Caribou herd is located in a 23,000 square mile range on the edge of the Chugach Mountains. It is one of the only caribou herds that is accessible by the Alaskan highway system, making it very popular for hunters. Schwanke is hoping that the extra hunters will help keep the population in moderate levels.
“I hope that folks are able to get out and take full advantage of the additional hunting opportunities this year without overcrowding,” Schwanke said. “And you know hopefully, folks maintain pretty high level of ethics when they are out in the field, with an understanding that there’s going to be a lot of folks in the field this year.”
Subsistence hunting and community harvest hunts are allowed with permits. The Department of Fish and Game also issues permits after random drawings. All the additional permits have already been issued for this season.