Many factors come into play in the management of game populations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is grappling with this task. When discussing the topic with a biologist, numbers and studies will dominate the conversation. Are numbers really at the heart of management?
The first thing to manage is to establish the objective. This premise applies to everything we try. Whether it’s training my dog or teaching my children math: what is the end result I want?
Take a look at Nelchina caribou management. The goal is 35,000 creatures, more or less. Harvest 5,000 caribou, replace 5,000. Sounds easy.
However, to replace the desired animals, we need to determine a few variables. What is our optimal bull/cow ratio? How many bulls will the hunters have? How much will the wolves have? What will be the winter kill? These factors make things a bit risky.
Let’s complicate the management a bit more. How much snow do we have this winter? Will it melt soon enough for the cows to reach the calving grounds? High rivers or a wet summer could cause excessive mortality in young caribou, thus affecting projected recruitment.
Biologists must also consider how many Nelchina caribou join the 40-mile caribou herd. The two herds have common wintering grounds. Nelchina caribou wintered from Mount Sanford to Dawson last season. Have any joined the Porcupine herd? Fish and Game says it doesn’t think so.
How many caribou caught in the 40 mile hunt could have been Nelchina animals? The 40 mile seasons have been quite liberal in recent years. We know that Nelchina’s population estimate for 2022 is now below 21,000 animals. That’s down from the estimate of 35,000 to 40,000 animals a year ago. That’s about 15,000 missing animals.
An estimated 10% loss of Nelchina caribou in the 40-mile herd. This is based on two of the 20 collared cows. Small sample. The overwinter mortality estimate that 30% of cows did not survive is based on the same sample.
However, the population of the 40-mile herd is also declining. The population estimate of 40,000 is down considerably from the estimate several years ago. In addition to interacting with the Nelchina Herd, the 40 Mile Animals may also cross paths with the Porcupine Herd, though this is an unknown at this time.
The population estimate for the porcupine herd is very approximate at this time. This herd is expanding well in Canada. The winter range certainly overlaps with both the 40-Mile and Nelchina herds, at least this past winter.
The availability of navigation must also be taken into account. Caribou feed primarily on wheatgrass and lichens during the winter months. Summer feeding is similar with the addition of certain seasonal plants such as willowherb, dwarf birch and willow. What must be the available grazing status to have a happy, returning caribou herd? No one knows. There may be older reindeer herders who have anecdotal idea of this, but who talks to them?
As you can see, very few factors affecting caribou proliferation are predictable or controllable.
The only guarantees are policy and regulation. There are many special interest groups that want to shoot a caribou. Some want it for food. For others, the priority is the hunt itself. There are five separate hunting licenses for Nelchina caribou. There is also a community hunt and a federal subsistence hunt. The details of these hunts don’t matter. What is important are the various groups that successfully lobbied and harassed for these hunts. It’s politics, not biology.
Although some special interest hunts may seem necessary, care must be taken that “wants” do not override the biological health of the herd.
There are also less notable factors that can also alter how caribou migrate between summer calving grounds and wintering grounds. The Nelchina herd crosses the Richardson road. Recent years have seen tremendous pressure in animal crossing between Paxson and Sourdough. Animals learn. The result, similar to any other predation, could be a change in migration patterns.
In the end, we just don’t know where 15,000 Nelchina caribou went. Caribou management is not an exact science, there are simply too many uncontrollable factors. Studies are being done, but by the time the data is available, the response time has passed.
The Board of Game cycle for wildlife management is every three years. It can work on game populations far from the road network with very little human pressure. This is not a good way to deal with heavily impacted populations like we have in roadside units. In these places we need more intense management. Fish and Game must be allowed to respond to unexpected pressures rather than simply react.
Caribou and moose management, in particular, should be subject to annual review. Last winter, with its extreme snowfall that came early and stayed late, should have been an eye opener. There are times when anecdotal game management can be superior to data-based management. Time will tell – or perhaps time has already told us in the Copper River Basin.