More bad news for Alaskans invested in local food security.
First it was weak sockeye salmon runs in the Copper and Kenai rivers making fish hard to find. Now its declining caribou numbers in the Nelchina caribou herd forcing sharp restrictions on fall hunting.
Mother Nature is not playing nice, but thankfully this is the 21st Century. Unhappy Alaskan hunters might want to remember that when this sort of thing happened back in the 18th Century into the 19th Century people starved.
“No matter how clever or careful the Koyukon people were, sometimes they got caught without food,” the late Sidney Huntington, a former member of the Alaska Board of Game and a Koyukon Athabascan born in 1915 wrote in “Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River.” “If they didn’t migrate soon enough, starvation was not uncommon.
“When the whites arrived, they brought flour, valuable for mixing with other foods – meat, fish, skin – to make gravy. Flour stretched what little food the Indians had. When caribou were scarce, meat was dried until it crumbled and then mixed with flour and water to stretch it to the maximum.”
There is plenty of gravy in Alaska now, but Mother Nature remains a fickle mistress in the north.
The Nelchina herd took a bit of a beating from the snow and cold on the march back from winter range along the Canadian border in north-eastern Alaska, Todd Rinaldi, regional management coordinator for the Division of Wildlife in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Friday.
Some caribou died. Some, maybe having a premonition of the challenges to come on the march back to the heart of the Copper River basin north of Glennallen, took off to the west and north with the Fortymile caribou herd, he said.
The result is a now shrunken population.
Good times end
Everyone familiar with wildlife knew this was going to happen sometime, Rinaldi added. The Nelchina herd has been at a peak for several years. Wildlife populations never stay at a peak.
The Nelchina lost 10,000 to 15,000 animals over winter. That isn’t a disaster. Despite a difficult migration back to the calving grounds, Rinaldi said, the population looks to have produced about 35 calves per every hundred cows which should help it rebuild.
But the shrunken herd doesn’t provide for much of an allowable harvest. The state has fixed it at 1,400 caribou – bulls only. The harvest is being split between four hunts for which permits have already been issued and are no longer available:
- A registration hunt that begins Aug. 10 and runs through the end of the month. It will have a quota of 500 bulls.
- A second registration hunt for a different group of hunters that begins Sept.1 and runs through Sept. 20. It will have a limit of 500 bulls.
- A drawing permit hunt that starts Aug. 20 and runs through Sept 20. The drawing hunt will be limited to 250 caribou. It will have a limit of 250 bulls.
- A community harvest program will get the rest of the caribou.
Big-game hunting regulations have become incredibly complicated in Alaska over the years as the state Board of Game has tried to figure out how to make a limited number of caribou meet a large hunting demand tinged with all kinds of special claims as to the need to hunt:
- Need for the meat of the caribou to survive.
- Need to maintain cultural connections to caribou hunting.
- Need for equal treatment under the law.
- Need to reward longevity in the hunt area and/or Alaska.
- Need to recognize who arrived in Alaska first.
About the only thing all the people with needs have been able to wholly agree on is that non-residents should be banned from the hunt because they have no need.
Thus all of the hunts are limited to Alaska residents. The quotas are expected to be met early once the seasons open. The drawing hunt is sure to fill its quota before the end of the month.
Depending on where the caribou are when the other season opens, the registration hunts could be over in a weekend. The state is requiring all hunters to report kills within three days.
Rinaldi said the first hunters he’d talked to Friday were unhappy but understood the need for the harvest reduction.
Alaska might be thought of as a land of fish and wildlife bounty, but the reality is that it’s not. As ecosystems march north from the equator they get less and less productive.
“Tropical ecosystems, because of their high productivity and extensive footprint on the Earth’s surface, comprise nearly half of global net primary productiivty (NPP) and gross primary productivity (GPP),” Christopher Gough writes at Nature. “Temperate ecosystems and croplands are also a substantial fraction of global terrestrial primary production, accounting for roughly a quarter of global NPP and GPP.”
The boreal forest and tundra of the northern hemisphere? Not so much.
Combined, they are estimated to produce about 8 percent of GPP, and most of that is provided by the forest. Tundra habitat actually provides only a quarter the productivity of desert habitat, and caribou are creatures of the tundra.
Rinaldi found reason to take heart in the fact the Nelchina decline appears to have been caused by winter kill and not range degradation due to too many caribou. Fish and Game has had problems in the past trying to limit the Nelchina herd to the size its range will support in the face of public demands for more, more and more caribou.
After examining the range in 1990, scientist James Lieb reported “that 75 percent exhibited poor lichen production. This represents a substantial decline in preferred
lichen availability from that observed in 1983 when the range was rated as approximately one-third good condition, one-third fair and one-third poor.”
Lied traced the problem back to the 1960s when the herd reached “a peak of possibly 70,000 in 1965, after which it began declining. As the population reached a low point of approximately 10,000 in the early 1970s, lichen standing crop began increasing.
“At the same time the Nelchina caribou herd started to grow.”