Mulchatna caribou herd population drops by half, prompting hunting bag limit reduction

Mulchatna Caribou. (Image credit Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

The population of the Mulchatna Caribou herd has dropped, and so has the bag limit for harvesting the animals. This season, hunters are limited to taking one caribou instead of the usual two. The bag limit applies to game units 9A, 9B, 9C, 17A, 17B, 17C, 18, 19A, and 19B.

The population change is dramatic. State wildlife biologists estimate that the Mulchatna Caribou herd is about half the size it was two years ago. This summer, biologists counted about 13,500 caribou. Two summers ago, they counted about 25,000.

“We’re not exactly clear on why they’ve declined like that,” said Keith Oster, who’s a Bethel-based wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“We do monitor calf survival,” Oster explained, “and calf survival overall has actually been pretty strong. That indicates that there’s something going wrong with the older age structure.”

The older caribou are dying, not the young ones, which are usually more vulnerable.

“Once a caribou gets to three or four years old, they’re pretty safe from predators unless they get injured, or sick, or something like that,” Oster said. “But for some reason, we’re seeing a higher level of mortality in those upper age classes that we normally don’t see.”

The reason behind the disappearance of high numbers of adult caribou remains a mystery, and with the Mulchatna herd declining so quickly, managers had no choice but to reduce the bag limit. 

The one-caribou bag limit is different from what’s printed in the state’s hunting regulations. The hunting season opened at the beginning of August, but the state issued an emergency order reducing the bag limit towards the end of that month. That’s because biologists did not complete their assessment of the population numbers collected during the summer until after the season began. The season ends March 31, 2020.

In more hunting news, hunters who got a moose hunting permit for September and have not reported the outcome of their hunt are asked to contact ADF&G. Hunters can report online, through the mail, at an ADF&G Office, or by calling ADF&G. About 450 permit holders along the Kuskokwim River have yet to report.

Also, starting Friday, Nov. 1, Kuskokwim Tier II moose hunting permits will become available, as will muskox hunting permits for Nunivak Island and Nelson Island.