After years of decline, Western Arctic Caribou Herd stabilizes 

569
Caribou from the Western Arctic Caribou Herd travers the Noatak National Preserve in northwest Alaska in September 2012. (National Park Service)
Caribou from the Western Arctic Caribou Herd travers the Noatak National Preserve in northwest Alaska in September 2012. (National Park Service)

The decline of Alaska’s biggest caribou herd appears to have stopped, biologists studying the herd report.

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which numbered 490,000 in 2003 but dropped to less than half that a decade later, appears to have stabilized and is showing signs of increase, state and federal biologists told an advisory panel last week.

Based on analysis of photographs in the animals’ habitat, the herd is now estimated to total slightly over 200,000, the same size or possibly a bit larger than in 2016, state biologist Lincoln Parrett told the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group.

The group, which represents regional residents who depend on caribou hunting, reviewed population data at its annual meeting in Anchorage.

“The recent decline has probably stabilized or reversed for now. That, obviously, good news,” Parrett said. The stabilization followed multiple years of worrying trends, Parrett said. Below 200,000, the current annual harvest of about 12,000 animals would be too high, he said. “We were going to have to talk more seriously about how we were going to reduce harvest if it kept going down. It didn’t,” he said.

Aside from numbers, there are other good signs — an overwinter survival rate of 90 percent, which is “very, very good,” and calves in healthy condition, Parrett said.

For many years, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd was by far the largest in North America. The recent declines put it in a position to be passed by the Porcupine Caribou Herd that straddles the Alaska-Canada border and calves on the Arctic coastal plain.

The past years’ declines triggered some new hunting restrictions that mostly fell on hunters from outside the caribou range region. In the northwestern Alaska region that is the heart of the caribou grounds — an area that state regulations designate as Game Management Unit 23 — the number of visiting hunters was drastically reduced in 2016 and 2017, Parrett reported.

Despite the good news on population and animal health, the working group was not in favor of liberalizing hunting rules anytime soon. The consensus was for a recommendation of continued cautious limits — no more than 12,000 to 16,000 animals hunted, a figure designated as “conservative” in herd management.

“I sit here and think, hey, we hit rock bottom last year, maybe,” said working group member Tom Gray. “We need to hold our breath for a couple of years. . .But I really don’t think we’re ready to go the other step up into liberal management.”

While total numbers appear to be on their way back to former levels, behavior showed a big change.

A large number of the herd’s animals failed to migrate south in winter last year, a puzzling finding, said Kyle Joly, a biologist with the National Park Service. In 2016, 42 percent of collared animal didn’t move south of the Noatak River. “It’s a really unusual distribution,” Joly said.

This year, the pattern seems to be continuing. As of November of this year, there was a large contingent of caribou that still had not moved south into the normal wintering grounds.

That shift brought down the overall herd’s per-animal distance traveled, he said. From September 2016 to August 2017, the mean miles traveled for collared caribou was 1,822, compared to more than 2,000 miles per animal for a normal year, he said.

Joly said warmer fall weather in the Arctic could be one factor behind the change in migration patterns, and at least one working group member agreed with that assessment.

“We are experiencing climate change as well as the caribou” said working group member Cyrus Harris.

Other potential threats to the caribou got review at the meeting.

One is the proposed Ambler Mining District Access Project, the 211-mile road that would run though the Brooks Range foothills and to an area of northwest Alaska where large amounts of copper have been found.

The working group has been drafting its official comments that will go to the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that’s overseeing an environmental impact statement analyzing the proposal. Working group members are critical of the project, and at their meeting quizzed officials from the BLM, the National Park Service and Trilogy Metals. The federal agencies are conducting reviews of the proposed road, and Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals Inc is the mining company that would most directly benefit if the road were built.

In response to questions, Rick Van Van Nieuwenhuyse, chief executive officer of Trilogy Metals, said the road would likely carry 30 ore-laden truck out from the mine each day and a similar number of vehicles bearing supplies and fuel into the mine.

The possibility of more traffic than that was especially concerning to working group members. They said they are skeptical of promises that the 211-mile road would be an industrial-use only route. The road, if built, would eventually be opened to the public, meaning more pressure on the resource from non-residents, they said.

“Come on. Somebody’s pulling someone’s leg here,” Vern Cleveland, chairman of the working group, said to the BLM’s Laurie Thorpe, who is coordinating the environmental analysis. “Look at the Dalton Highway.”

The Dalton Highway, which links Alaska’s road system to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, was planned and initially used as an industrial-only route. It was completed in 1974 and opened up to the public in 1994.

A draft letter that is expected to be sent from the working group to the BLM raises concerns about public use of the proposed road, effective enforcement of speed limits and other safety measures and the need for new analysis of road impacts to caribou.

The BLM is accepting public comments in the early phase of the environmental analysis, called scoping, until the end of January.

The working group also reviewed its position on future oil development within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. A September letter from the working group to the BLM urged the agency to keep drilling off-limits in the lands around Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake on the North Slope. That was one of the five special areas established by the 2013 Obama administration land management plan for NPR-A. The Trump administration, through an order issued in May by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is evaluating options to roll back the 2013 protections, including the Teshekpuk Lake protections.