Mulchatna caribou population declines further; managers and Elders request help complying with hunting closures
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife took KYUK on a flight to Eek Lake, 13 miles southeast of Bethel, to view the Mulchatna Caribou. The herd had just made its annual migration from its calving grounds north of Dillingham to its winter home just southeast of Bethel.
The Cessna 185 outfitted with skis skated onto a frozen lake nearby a grazing herd. The landing spooked the animals, but they were curious. A few dozen circled back, running in concert like a gust of wind.
“It never gets less cool,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) pilot Robert Sundown, watching with awe as the animals ran. He grew up in Scammon Bay, but when he moved to Bethel in the 90s, he’d hunted caribou at a time when their numbers were at their peak.
“There were so many, and you could be picky,” Sundown said. “To be picky meant 'we're gonna shoot the female cows because they were in better shape. They weren't busy fighting all fall.'”
This year, there’s no opportunity to be picky. For the first time in decades, the Mulchatna caribou hunt is completely closed for the entire season because the population has crashed. Kenton Moos, the Mulchatna caribou manager for USFWS, said that the herd went from 200,000 animals in the late 90s to just 13,500 as of 2019.
“This year, it's actually down even a little bit more: 12,850,” Moos said.
Moos said that biologists are still stumped about what exactly caused the population to crash. It’s likely a combination of factors. Moos said that biologists have found brucellosis in the caribou herd, a bacteria that causes lameness and miscarriages.
“But it's not the smoking gun that people want to find,” Moos said.
Their decline could also be partly due to increased predation. Kwethluk Elder James Nicori said that hunters in the area have seen more wolves ever since caribou started showing up in large numbers in the 90s.
“The wolves came in with them,” Nicori said.
Back then, Nicori said that hunters would notice wolves going on caribou killing sprees, only eating part of the animals.
“People that came back reported only the testicles and that area had been eaten. Then they move to another animal cause they were so abundant,” Nicori said.
Moos, the caribou manager, said that there’s reason to believe that wolf numbers have been rising because the wolves have had more food available after the successful moose moratorium.
“With the moose numbers increasing, there is potential for those predators to [increase] also. It may keep their numbers a little bit higher than what we would normally see,” Moos said.
In other words, a larger moose population could have allowed for the wolf population to grow, which means more wolves could be hunting caribou. Of course, another reason caribou numbers are down might be because of human predation.
Last month, on the USFWS flight to view the caribou herds, there were both types of predation visible: wolf kills where blood spots were surrounded by paw prints, and human kills where remains were surrounded by snowmachine tracks.
Moos said that USFWS has seen instances of illegal caribou poaching in the last month, even though the hunt is closed.
“Tough times with COVID, low fish returns, and so forth. We totally get that, you know, people need resources to feed their families,” Moos said.
He said that the feds have focused on visiting villages and talking to community leaders about the need to work together to build back the caribou population.
“But then also that law enforcement will be there. So that if illegal take occurs and they are caught, don't be surprised that there's going to be citations issued,” Moos said.
USFWS declined to say how many citations they’ve issued so far this year, but did confirm that there have been some.
Nicori said that he has heard hunters in his community spreading the word that the caribou hunt is closed, and he said that he supports the closure himself.
“Cause it worked when we did it on the moose,” Nicori said. “And if they do the same thing with the caribou, they can grow back into the same numbers.”
Nicori added that people from Kwethluk and surrounding villages have been hunting wolves in an effort to protect the caribou.