Midnight on Dec. 31 brings the close of 2019 and also the close of the hunting season for Mulchatna Caribou on federal lands. The federal season, originally scheduled to end in March, is closing early because of low herd numbers. However, hunting on state land for these animals will remain open. KYUK talked with managers on both sides about their decisions.
State and federal managers agree that there are not enough Mulchatna Caribou both for subsistence users to hunt and for the herd to continue growing. It’s one or the other. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in-season manager Kenton Moos chose to close the hunt early on federal lands, hoping for a chance at growth.
“We want this herd to recover and to do it in a timely manner,” Moos said, “so that people who depends on this herd can have those needs met.”
Three years ago, there were over 27,000 Mulchatna caribou. Now, there’s less than half that number at about 13,500. The cause of the decline remains unknown. Closing the hunt wasn’t an easy decision. Many people use the meat as a primary winter food source, but Moos wishes he’d done it earlier.
“One of my fears is that we haven’t taken conservation measures early enough, and we’re going to delay the recovery of this herd,” Moos said.
Moos had held off on his decision, hoping the state would join in and close its land to Mulchatna caribou hunting at the same time as the federal managers, but the state refused.
Before announcing the federal closure, Moos had consulted with local groups involved in subsistence. All of them, he says, support some degree of conservation. Orutsararmiut Native Council, the Bethel tribe, advocated for the more extreme option of an early closure because of the herd’s steep population decline. ONC Natural Resources Director Mary Matthias hopes the state will follow the federal manager's lead.
“As soon as the closure comes into effect, the caribou can be protected somewhat until the state steps in and actually closes the season on their side,” Matthias said.
Todd Rinaldi is helping manage the Mulchatna Caribou Herd for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He’s the ADF&G Regional Management Coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Conservation for Central Southwest Alaska.
Rinaldi agrees that any harvest will prevent the herd from growing, but he calls that harvest “tolerable.”
“We can probably have some level of harvest that can provide some sustenance to folks out there, while not having a dramatic effect on the overall population,” he explained.
Rinaldi says the state needs buy-in for conservation from the 40 to 60 villages that use the herd. Also, he says, the state is still gathering data on the animals, including the rate of adult caribou survival and trying to better understand how many caribou have been harvested but not reported since the season opened in August.
Rinaldi reasons the state has time to consider its options. Conditions for winter caribou hunting have only recently turned favorable with enough snow and ice to reach the herd.
ADF&G will deliver a presentation on the Mulchatna Caribou to the Board of Game in mid-January. The Board could take emergency action on the hunt at that time.