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Central Arctic Caribou Decline May Result in Stricter Regulations

Fairbanks — A drop in the Central Arctic caribou herd from 50,000 animals three years ago to around 22,000 in 2016 may lead to shorter hunting seasons and smaller bag limits in 2017. Reasons for the decline aren’t completely understood, but hunting is not thought to be a factor. Biologists believe a combination of elements is at play.

The Central Arctic herd peaked between 2008 and 2010 at approximately 70,000 caribou. By 2013, surveys indicated the herd had declined to 50,000, due in large part to a late spring that year which resulted in above average mortality.

Since 2013, high mortality has been documented in radiocollared adult females. “This was the major factor accounting for the herd’s recent decline to 22,000 caribou,” said Beth Lenart, Northeast Alaska area wildlife biologist.

Some of the Central Arctic caribou may have also left with the Porcupine and Teshekpuk herds in the past few years when the herds were mixed during post-calving and winter. Analyses to better understand the contribution of herd mixing is ongoing.

Research into other causes of the decline is less conclusive. Annual pregnancy rates since 2013 were lower compared to the previous 10 years, but still considered fair to good. In 2016, an adequate number of bulls were available for breeding and the proportion of cows with calves was above average compared with other caribou herds. In addition, calves observed in October were in good physical condition. A calf survival study is in progress and may provide additional insight into herd health.

The Central Arctic herd, which ranges throughout Game Management Unit 26B, currently has a liberal bag limit of five caribou. Hunting is not thought to be a factor in the herd’s decline because hunter harvest accounts for a very small portion of overall caribou mortality. However, because the herd has fallen substantially below its population objective of 28,000 to 32,000, the department will recommend at a February 2017 meeting that the Board of Game adopt regulations to reduce overall harvest and limit cow harvest in order to maintain a harvest of 2 to 3 percent of the herd’s size. Restrictions could include bag limit reductions and season changes which may go into effect as early as April 2017.

A Central Arctic caribou herd newsletter with more detailed information will be available soon. For more information, contact Beth Lenart at (907) 459-7242, or email beth.lenart@alaska.gov.