Alaska’s Western Arctic Caribou Herd is one of the largest caribou herds in the world—and it’s shrinking fast. Between 2019 and 2021, the herd’s population fell by nearly a quarter, dropping from 244,000 animals to 188,000. “It’s around 60 animals per day that died,” said Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group (WACHW) member Tom Gray, as reported by the Anchorage Daily News. “This decrease is huge. If this happens again two years from now, we’re going to be really panicking.”

The WACHW is comprised of a combination of subsistence users, other Alaskan hunters, reindeer herders, hunting guides, transporters, and conservationists. They met earlier this month to discuss the worrying trend. Its members voted unanimously to change the herd management status from “conservative declining” to “preservative declining” in response to the shrinking population. The designation change could impact future hunting regulations. 

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd has been in decline since 2003 when the herd had around 500,000 individuals. One of the reasons for the decline has to do with changing weather and migratory patterns. Warmer temperatures and less snow have delayed caribou migration by up to two months over the last ten years. When temps are low and there’s snow on the ground, caribou travel quickly. But when there’s less snow and better forage, they slow down. Another factor slowing the caribou migration is the Red Dog Mine Road, a 53-mile raised gravel road that connects a massive zinc and lead mine with a seaport. Biologists aren’t sure why some caribou are leery of the lightly-traveled road, but a 2016 study showed that a quarter of migrating caribou wouldn’t cross it. 

The delayed migration has forced subsistence hunters to harvest more cows and calves because the bulls that arrive late are already rutting and have foul-tasting meat. This change in harvest makes a greater impact on the overall caribou population—and some local subsistence hunters are already feeling the effects. Alaskan Crystal Johnson said that her youngest son wanted to kill his first caribou in the fall of 2020. “We didn’t see one caribou,” Johnson testified during a Federal Subsistence Board meeting in November. “We had a really, really tough winter because we didn’t fill our freezer with caribou meat.”

Other factors may also play a role in the herd’s decline, including increased predation, according to the WACHW. Additionally, some subsistence hunters have alleged that visiting hunters flying small planes close to the ground are impacting caribou movement, though sport hunters counter that there’s no scientific basis for this claim.

“It seems to be the classic death by a thousand cuts,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) wildlife biologist Alex Hansen. “We have a lot of things going against us and we are working to understand it all.”

Regulatory Changes for Caribou Hunting May Be On the Horizon

Though caribou herd populations naturally oscillate to some extent, the recent declines in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s population may force the hand of wildlife managers—and trigger new hunting restrictions. Under current regulations, Alaska residents—including subsistence hunters and sport hunters—are allowed to harvest five bulls or calves at any time of year in Game Management Unit 23, a remote area where much of the herd’s migration takes place.

The harvest of cows is limited to a seven-month-long season. Nonresident hunters can harvest one bull per year from August through September. New restrictions could include hunting closures for non-locals, a prohibition on calf harvests, and limiting cow harvests for resident hunters. The earliest the state’s Board of Game will consider changes to the management plan is November 2022.

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In the meantime, Hansen said the ADFG is working to increase harvest reporting compliance from local hunters in Northwest, Alaska, where there’s been a historical lack of reporting of subsistence hunts. Better reporting would give officials more data on the herd and help them make informed management decisions going forward. “We will continue to work with hunters and communities to improve compliance,” said Hansen. “The people of Northwest Alaska depend heavily on caribou, and reporting their catch each year is a simple way they can ensure the viability of the herd for their children and grandchildren.”