After more than a decade of decline, Alaska’s largest caribou herd is showing signs of growth. Counts of the Western Arctic caribou herd completed recently from aerial photographs taken during last summer’s photocensus tallied 239,055 animals, raising the total herd estimate to 259,000. That’s up from 201,000 caribou a year ago.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists who track the Western Arctic caribou herd are encouraged by the uptick, but not surprised.
“We’ve seen positive indicators for the past few years and have been anticipating the rebound,” said Kotzebue-based wildlife biologist Alex Hansen.
“During the declining years, adult cow mortality was high and calf recruitment was low, but since 2015 we’ve observed a positive shift in survival and recruitment rates. With fewer productive cows exiting the population and an increased number of calves joining the herd things were bound to improve.”
Alaska’s caribou herds frequently experience cyclic highs and lows influenced by natural factors including range condition, weather, disease, and predation. The Western Arctic caribou herd’s most recent peak of 490,000 animals in 2003 was followed by years of steady decline. Numbers reached a low of 201,000 in 2016, leading state and federal subsistence managers to initiate hunting restrictions.
Accuracy of the 2017 Western Arctic caribou herd photocensus was improved through implementation of a newly acquired digital photography system. The system supports higher flight altitudes and larger photo footprints that allow photography of large caribou groups that in the past might not have been photographable using the previous system. Its improved photo quality also allows for more precise counting.
“We believe the superior photo quality has led us to identify and count more calves than we did in the past; however, there is no doubt the herd increased between 2016 and 2017,” said wildlife biologist Lincoln Parrett.
The Western Arctic herd roams an area of about 157,000 square miles that includes many landowners and management entities. Caribou availability and abundance has largely shaped the heritage and traditions of Native Alaskans living in some 40 subsistence-based communities region-wide.