The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has issued an emergency order for caribou hunting in Bristol Bay. The bag limit is now one caribou instead of two. The order, for the RC503 Mulchatna hunt, affects units 17 A, B and C, as well as 9A, B and C, 18 and 19A, B.
Wildlife Biologist Lauren Watine said population levels usually hover between 20,000 and 27,000 animals. But this year’s estimate dropped significantly.
“We went from about 22,000 animals down to 13,500 based on our estimate,” Watine said. “For us, that’s a major conservation concern. Not just because the population dropped, but [it] went from over 20,000 to just over 13,000.”
Mulchatna herds have a history of fluctuation but biologists don’t know the cause of this year’s decline. Watine said it is possible that the caribou have moved to different areas. But given the trend in population, she believes it’s something else.
“The long and short of it is, it could be a number of things working together to have created this situation where the caribou have dropped to this current level,” Watine said. “It could be that these mild winters are causing them to overgraze and actually reduce the amount of food that’s left on the landscape for them.”
ADF&G is planning more caribou surveys this fall and through the winter to understand the decline. The first composition survey is in October. Watine said history favors the herd’s recovery.
“Caribou are pretty resilient,” she said. “We’re catching it early enough that hopefully we don’t have to institute a moratorium and hopefully this will be enough to allow them to start recovering.”
While the harvest in RC503 is reduced to one caribou, the bag limit in RC501 is still two. That hunt includes parts of the Nushagak Peninsula in unit 17. Hunters can bag one animal on the 501 and one on the 503, or both strictly on the 501.