ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A rough estimate shows the Western Arctic Caribou Herd is not rebounding from its last several years of declining population.
State wildlife experts estimate the herd’s population at 200,000, down from the 235,000 counted in the 2013 census.
Fairbanks-based Fish and Game biologist Lincoln Parrett briefed the Western Alaska Caribou Herd Working Group last week and said the new estimated population size is not exact. An aerial population survey was nixed this summer due to technical problems, and scientists are planning another attempt in mid-2016.
The herd was at its peak in 2003, with 490,000 caribou. The 2011 census counted 325,000 caribou. Parrett said the good news is that the decline appears to be slowing.
Further population loss could mean a change in the annual hunt capped around 13,000 of the herd’s caribou. The historically “small role in demographics” that hunting has played “may be changing in the future if the herd size continues to decline,” he said.
He noted that those changes probably wouldn’t be seen until 2017. This year, new rules stopped the harvest of calves as well as the nonresident harvest of cows. Limitations were also added in the nonresident harvest of bulls.
Working group member Tom Gray said Thursday that, “In years to come, we’re going to have some hard decisions to make.”
Although the cause of the population decline is unknown, Parrett said climate change is one possible culprit.
“People are noticing on-the-ground changes,” he said.
Parrett says if the 200,000 figure is proven accurate, the Porcupine Caribou Herd along the northern Alaska-Canada border could now be the biggest in Alaska.
He said the Porcupine herd may be the biggest in North America. Parrett said in an email that recent population counts are not available for two other contenders for the title, the Leaf River Caribou Herd in Quebec and the Qamanirjuaq Caribou Herd in Nunavut and Manitoba.