Decline in Western Arctic Caribou Herd Abundance Calls for Unity and Problem Solving
Important information regarding a decline in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd (WACH) was recently published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This decline highlights the need for hunters to prioritize research and lobby for effective management practices and safeguards for the future of the WACH.
The 2021 photo census results for the WACH (WACH Working Group Binder) show a significant decline in the abundance since the last census was performed in 2019. The 2019 census had an estimated abundance of 244,000 animals, while the 2021 census estimates the abundance at 188,000, +/- 11,855, with a minimum count of 180,374 animals.
The management levels for the WACH are determined by a matrix that considers data such as herd abundance, adult cow survival, and calf recruitment as metrics to determine what the management level is and what, if any, management actions should be taken. The management level for 2020, with an abundance estimate of 244,000 and slightly low cow survival and calf recruitment was “conservative declining”. Given the current abundance, adult cow survival rates below 80%, and calf recruitment at 17:100 adults, it is likely that the management level will fall into “preservative” status, and potentially trigger management action. Some of the management tools available are restricting nonresident harvest, limiting harvest of cows, restricting harvest of calves, and the closure of federal public lands to caribou hunting by non-federally qualified users (NFQUs).
It is possible that the outcome for WSA21-01 will be affected by the recent herd abundance estimate. Much of the discussion and opposition to WSA21-01 stemmed from the fact that the abundance of the WACH was 244,000, a level that did not call for strict management action to be taken. The other primary point of opposition was that there is no data that suggests aircraft traffic has affected caribou migration, which was the primary support for WSA21-01. Alaska BHA cited both reasons as part of our opposition to the special action request. We have also repeatedly stated that our opposition comes from a belief that broad stakeholder input is vital to the long-term conservation of this herd and that subsistence and sport hunting groups should be cooperating to support that goal.
Alaska BHA expects that the arguments against WSA21-01 will shift towards placing restrictions on whichever user group takes more caribou. Overwhelmingly, federally qualified users (FQUs) take more caribou than NFQUs, there is no argument against that. However, framing this discussion around user group harvest fails to address the most important question, why did the WACH decline by ~50,000 animals in two years? It seems highly unlikely that subsistence and sport harvest are the culprits, thus potential solutions should not be limited to reducing harvest opportunity or by restricting access. The discussion must shift, and it must be shifted so that hunters can empower management policies and promote research that works to identify threats to the long-term viability of this herd.
The WACH has seen significantly lower herd abundances and recovered, so there is still reason for optimism. However, at the same time we are seeing this decline we are seeing landscape wide changes, likely due to climate change, and development projects like the Ambler Road, which will bisect nearly the entire migration route, move forward. Potential development in the future in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, and additional mining along the proposed Ambler Road, and adjacent to Red Dog Mine will not have a positive impact on caribou abundance. These myriad challenges must be identified and addressed collectively to determine whether we can sustain thriving populations of caribou on the landscape into the future.
Alaska is the last state in the U.S. with caribou, one of the last states to have a truly thriving subsistence culture, and supports ample opportunities for sport hunting throughout the state. This should not be taken for granted and it needs to be realized that the reason we have these things is because of large, healthy, and intact landscapes. In today’s growing, and demanding world we need voices of support to ensure that those landscapes stay healthy and intact. Hunters cannot afford to remain divided over allocation issues in the face of growing conservation threats.