The Mulchatna Caribou Herd population has dropped to half the size that it was three years ago. To conserve the herd, the state issued an emergency order reducing the bag limit from two caribou to one. Now federal managers have released even tighter hunting restrictions. With the herd’s decreased population, some people want the hunt shut down entirely.
The Federal Subsistence Board passed a temporary wildlife special action request on Nov. 5 that limits hunters to taking one caribou on federal lands this season. In game units 18, 19A, and 19B, that caribou must be a bull, and hunters must be federally qualified local subsistence users. In game units 17A, 17B, 17C, 9A, 9B, and 9C, that caribou can be a cow or a bull and hunters do not have to be federally qualified local subsistence users. All hunters will continue registering for the hunt with state permits.
Throughout the hunt, Kenton Moos will serve as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service federal in-season manager of the herd. He has the authority to change the bag limit or shut down the hunt early on federal lands, which could happen based on how many caribou are harvested and how easy it is for hunters to access them.
“We want to recover this population, and it may mean a closure fairly soon,” Moos said.
Moos is working with the state to determine what criteria to use to trigger the closure.
“We’re trying to be very sensitive to people’s needs, subsistence needs,” he said. “However, we also have to have that balancing act of managing this herd for future generations.”
The goal is to conserve what’s left of the herd, which has experienced a dramatic population decline. In 2016, ADF&G surveyed over 27,242 caribou. In the following survey in 2019, the state counted less than half that number, only 13,500. The number shocked biologists, including Moos.
“This was sort of a surprise to me,” he said. “There were some indicators that the population was stable and potentially showing potential for growth just a couple years ago.”
So why has the herd shrunk so much, so fast? There seems to be plenty of food, and cows are having lots of healthy calves. Predators could be a problem, but the state has operated a wolf control program for the past several years. One driving issue seems to be over-hunting. It’s suspected that people are taking more caribou than they’re reporting. Because of that, Moos emphasized that registering and reporting your hunt quickly is critical to managing the herd this season, and that law enforcement will have a greater presence than usual.
John Andrew is an Elder from Kwethuk, and the Kuskokwim village has a strong tradition of caribou hunting. He’s skeptical of the herd’s low numbers, and says that many people in his community view harvest reporting as invasive.
“We lose our privacy,” Andrew explained. “It’ll be like if I go up to you and ask you the question, ‘What have you been eating every day? Where do you buy your food? Where do you buy your clothing from?’ Those you would rather keep to yourself.”
Some people want to close down hunting entirely on the Mulchatna Caribou Herd. Alissa Nadine Rogers chairs the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Advisory Committee. She’s been consulting with federal managers about what to do about the population decline for months. Her solution: “It’s a no brainer that this hunt should be closed.”
The herd covers a massive area from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, to the Western Interior, to Bristol Bay. Rogers says that there are not enough caribou for everyone, and it’s too easy to accidently kill or wound more than one caribou because of how densely they herd. Her prediction is dire: “If each single person who’s a federally qualified user actually goes out hunting, we’re going to completely wipe out this herd this year.”
Closing caribou hunting wouldn’t be easy. Rogers says that with the summer salmon restrictions, people have been relying more on caribou to fill their freezers. In addition, many Kuskokwim hunters didn’t get a moose this fall due to low water and poor weather. These slim harvests could put greater hunting pressure on caribou this winter.