Mulchatna caribou conservation efforts are just beginning, manager says

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

Why the size of Mulchatna caribou herd has dramatically declined may not be known, but some things are known about how people can help conserve the herd, which has dropped to half the size it was three years ago.

KYUK held a call-in show with local subsistence users and federal managers to share local knowledge of the Mulchatna caribou and to learn how federal authorities plan to manage the hunt.

Here’s what managers want hunters to do: register for a state hunting permit, stick to the one-caribou bag limit, target bulls on federal lands as regulation dictates and report harvests to the state as soon as possible. Also, target predators, like wolves.

Kenton Moos is the federal in-season manager for the Mulchatna caribou herd for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he laid out the stakes. 

“Any overharvest is going to be detrimental, and the idea is not only to recover this herd, but to do it in a timely manner,” he said.

Why the population dropped in half, from more than 27,000 caribou in 2016 to 13,500 in 2019, is unknown. But there are suspected causes, and the decline can likely be attributed to a combination of them. Moos says that the possibilities include predation, over-hunting, disease, an increase in older caribou that are naturally dying and a recent string of warm, rainy winters.

Related: The Mulchatna caribou are disappearing No one is sure why.

“Is it tougher on a caribou that is trying to survive out there that’s wet in the wintertime as opposed to 20 below?” Moos said. “We’re not sure.”

Another suspect is a trend in recent years of cows having fewer calves, especially in the Western range where there are more hunters and the caribou decline has been steepest.

In this Western range sits Bethel, where Robert Lekander lives. He’s chosen not to hunt caribou this season because of the decline, and he advocates for tighter hunting restrictions.

“It should be one per household, not one per person.” Lekander said. “Or another thought is like we did with the moose: a moratorium.”

For five years in the mid 2000s, the Kuskokwim River area ceased moose hunting to grow the local moose population. It worked, and hunters have been able to take Kuskokwim moose every fall since the moratorium lifted. 

Many Kuskokwim hunters don’t think over-hunting is causing the caribou decline. State surveys indicate that more households are using caribou than are reporting harvests, but Evon Waska of Bethel said that warm, early springs mean that hunters like himself haven’t even been able to travel to the herd in recent years.

“Because all the snow melts in February, and we can’t even get to them,” Waska said.

Noah Phillip of Tuluksak pointed to predation as the driving issue for the caribou drop, reporting a rising wolf population near his community.

“Over the years, I’ve heard packs of pups howling upriver in Tuluksak within my fish camp,” he said.

Federal manager Moos encouraged hunters to take more predators, saying that action, and reducing caribou harvests, are the main tools available for conserving the herd. He stressed that the current regulations are just the first pass at conservation efforts that will likely change and continue in coming years.

“We may have to do some things that in the short term might not be comfortable, but in the long term will hopefully be beneficial for this herd,” Moos said.

The hunt could shut down early, but for now the season continues through March 2020. Law enforcement is increasing surveillance, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be traveling to Middle Kuskokwim River communities in the coming weeks to gather input on how to manage the Mulchatna caribou herd.