Caribou are and have been an important resource for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for at least 28 years. On Christmas Eve, KYUK takes time to learn about the reindeer’s close cousin: the caribou.
The expert on the Mulchatna caribou herd is Neil Barten, Area Wildlife Management Biologist for the Department of Fish and Game in Dillingham, AK. The herd used to remain on the east side of the Kilbuck Mountains, but that has changed over time.
Petra Harpak: What year do you think the caribou migrated to the western side of the Kilbuck Mountains and why?
Niel Barten: Well, I think over time, you know, during the early part of the 1900s the herd was relatively small, with the main group being in the upper Mulchatna country. And as it grew in the 1980s, and especially when it peaked in the mid-1990s at almost 200,000 animals by our estimation, the herd as it grew needed more habitat to suffice for the herd to have good forage. And they started spreading out, and year after year their range increased, and pretty soon they were moving west of the mountains over into the Yukon-Delta area. And I think it was all based on increase in population size and need for larger areas and more habitat.
Harpak: Would you please explain to me how the Mulchatna caribou herd got it’s name?
Barten: “Well, I think, you know, going back in time, the core of the area for the Mulchatna was along the Mulchatna River so I assume that’s where the name of the Mulchatna came from.”
Harpak: “Do the caribou migrate back to the Dillingham area to calve?”
Barten: “Yeah, the calving with the Mulchatna herd is really interesting. We have two main kind of parts of the herd: one section of the herd stays east of the Tikchik Lakes country, and that’s where they pretty much spend the entire year. Another portion spends most over in the Kwethluk River country, not so far from the east side of the Kuskokwim River. Along the villages there, they’ll spend most of the year there, but come calving time, late April early May, they migrate through the passes in the Tikchik Mountains and end up calving over on the east side of the mountain range. Sometimes near Koliganek, sometimes near those upper lakes, Nishlik and Upnuk Lake, they’ll calve there and then three to four-five weeks after calving they turn around and head right back, and back over to the west side of the mountains.
From 1995 to 2013, that’s 18 years, subsistence hunters in the Y-K Delta have been hunting the herd and have taken most of the caribou, aside from predators such as wolves, bears, golden eagles, wolverines, and lynx. In 2014, the caribou were estimated to be 18,000 all together.
Harpak: “Oh, so the herd is decreasing?”
Barten: Well, you know, it’s not so much that it’s decreasing right now, necessarily, but, you know, from the late 1800s all the way till about 1970 to 1980, by the best estimation of how many caribou were there, the herd stayed at a relatively low level. Some estimates in the tens to 20,000 to 30,000 animals, and in the 1980s the herd really started increasing in size. And by 1995 or so, the estimate was that there was about 200,000 animals in the herd. And then like caribou herds tend to do, the herd started decreasing in size from 1995 to 1996 on down to just a few years ago, and got down to as low as 18,000 animals we estimated just four to five years ago. And then like I said, in 2016 we estimated about 27,000, so you know, right now the herd is just kind of muddling along. It’s not growing much at all, but it’s just kind of floundering a little bit and we’re hoping it starts increasing in size. But right now we’re keeping an eye on calf survival, and that kind of stuff that all affects the number of animals in the herd.
Those numbers are for the whole Mulchatna range, which is a huge huge area 50 square miles or so, but it really goes from, you know, the Kuskokwim all the way over to Lake Clark. It goes up to almost Aniak and all the way down to Dillingham so it’s a huge area. Our estimate for the population is for the Mulchatna herd as a whole, that’s their general overall range.”
Harpak: I understand that male caribou compete with each other before the winner can mate up to 20 females.
Barten: The caribou herd is really healthy right now, the productivity is really good. We have a lot of two-year-old female caribou that are pregnant and having calves, which is a pretty good sign. And then when you have young animals like that having calves, the productivity is really good and the potential for increasing herd size is really good. So we have healthy animals, good productivity, the one thing we don’t have is real good calf survival, or haven’t had that for the last number of years, and that leads to fewer animals available to be recruited into the breeding population, and then that kind of limits the growth of the herd.
Harpak: “What is the caribou’s main diet?”
Barten: They eat a lot of lichen in the winter time. Lichen can be pretty important for them, but they do eat a lot of forage in the spring and summer and those are the main things in their diet. The one thing that was really apparent back in the mid-1990s when the caribou population was high, there was a lot of areas of wintering production of rich productive lichen that were overgrazed. And that was part of the reason why the Mulchatna herd started spreading out and ended up moving such a broad portion of a range and west toward the Kuskokwim is because they were looking for more available forage.”
Harpak: "A nukalpiaq means a successful hunter or good provider. Hunting for your family means you support your family by providing game, which means protection and love. There’s a first time for everything. It means even though something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen and there’s anything you choose to do in life. A little bit of hunting advice is always needed for anyone. What kind of hunting advice would you give to young men or women when they’re out hunting caribou?"
Barten: “Well, the Mulchatna right now is at pretty low density, so you really have to sometimes work pretty hard just to even find them. If you find the caribou they’re usually not that hard to get, but it’s a matter of finding them, and probably the best way to do that is just keep in contact with all your friends and neighbors who are out hunting and fishing. Whether they’re bear hunting, or moose hunting, or trapping, keep in touch and talk to one another, and when somebody finds a place where they can access caribou that’s pretty important information anymore. So that’s probably the biggest most important thing is to have knowledge of where they are so you can get out there and try to get them.”