Restrictions Planned For Northwest Alaska Caribou Hunters

Male caribou running near Kiwalik, Alaska. (Photo: Jim Dau)
Male caribou running near Kiwalik, Alaska. (Photo: Jim Dau)

For the first time in 30 years, hunting restrictions are planned for Northwest Alaska caribou.

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The Western Arctic and Teshekpuk herds lost half their numbers in the past decade. But this caribou crisis has spurred a unique collaboration, where user groups across the state chose to share the burden of hunting reductions.

The Alaska Board of Game recently considered a proposal to actively manage Western Arctic and Teshekpuk caribou herds. And in a surprising turn, Northwest Alaska hunters pushed for greater restrictions, which were ultimately adopted by the Board.

Caribou biologist Jim Dau with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game says it was a highlight of his career.

“That’s the way resource management is supposed to work,” Dau said. “Not having government force things down the public’s throat to conserve a resource—it’s the public stepping up and saying ‘we care enough about this resource that we’re willing to take a hit.’ I think that’s really impressive.”

And it is a serious hit. The Western Arctic Herd, in particular, spans from Barrow south to the Yukon River, cutting from the Koyukuk River westward onto the Seward Peninsula. It’s the state’s largest herd — 235,000 animals as of July 2013, less than half its peak of 490,000 in 2003 — and caribou is a primary food source for over 40 villages that fall within its range.

The new regulations will go into effect July 1, and will impact resident and non-resident hunters by lowering bag limits and reducing the length of the hunting season. Charlie Lean is chair of Fish & Game’s Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee. He says it wasn’t an easy decision.

“This is a hard pill to swallow but it’s a matter of sharing the burden of conservation between all areas and being proactive before it reaches a real crisis,” Lean said.

That willingness to share the pain is what Dau says sets this scenario apart from the last caribou crash in the 70s.

“That 1970s Western Arctic Herd population crash may have been one of the most serious wildlife management debacles in the history of the state,” Dau said.

Dau says the state responded by completely closing caribou hunting for everyone, with little input from local users. Here’s Jacob Ivanoff with the Southern Norton Sound Advisory Committee.

“The Board of Game at that time just said, ‘you guys gotta quit.’ That’s basically what they said,” Jacob Ivanoff, with the Southern Norton Sound Advisory Committee, said. “They did not give them the opportunity to express their opinions as we were able to at this last meeting.”

For the past 10 months, regional advisory committees have been assessing the population data and deciding how to react, ultimately opting to restrict their own opportunity for the good of the herd. The Western Arctic Herd traverses a variety of state, federal, and private land holdings, and overlapping state and federal regulations often confuse hunters. Ken Adkisson, with the National Park Service in Nome, says it would be ideal for the state and feds to pass similar regulations.

“Especially as it reduces confusion in the hunters’ minds where they don’t have to worry about whose land they’re on and whether the harvest limit changes,” Adkisson said. “I mean, the caribou don’t really care much where those boundary lines go and when you’re migrating all the way from the North Slope maybe almost to the Yukon, you’ve got a lot of boundary lines to cross.”

The question still on everyone’s mind is what’s causing the population decline. Data points in part to low calf-survival rate, and users almost unanimously blame predation. But Dau says implementing an effective predator control program will be complicated by land ownership boundaries. And while state and local groups lean toward supporting intensive management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service remain opposed.

“There are several guarantees with predator control: it’s always controversial, it’s always expensive, and it’s never guaranteed,” Dau said. “And all those things are going to be considered before the state does anything.”

The adopted state regulations are likely just step one in addressing the caribou decline.

The Department of Fish & Game will be conducting another population survey this year. The full text of new regulations can be found online.