Western Arctic Caribou Herd keeps shrinking, 2023 census shows

Oct. 29—Data collected this year points to a continuing decline in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently shared the results from this summer's photo census of the herd, which is estimated at 152,000 animals. That indicates a 7% decline from the previous year.

"It just represents a continued decline for the last 20 years since 2003," said Alex Hansen, wildlife biologist with Fish and Game. "That's a concern."

From 2021 to 2022, the herd lost 24,000 caribou, dropping to a population of 164,000 animals — the lowest count since the early 1980s. From 2022 to 2023, the loss was 12,000 animals.

"The slower rate of decline is one bit of hopeful news for this herd," said Brittany Sweeney, outreach specialist at Selawik National Wildlife Refuge.

Fish and Game shared the Western Arctic Caribou Herd photo census results at a meeting of the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council on Oct. 16.

[Previously: Western Arctic Caribou Herd shrank more in 2022, hurting Northwest Arctic subsistence hunters]

Like in previous years, biologists believe a combination of factors contributed to the herd's decline.

"Weather has certainly been challenging, later springs," Hansen said. "We had high predation rates this spring as caribou were moving into the calving grounds, predation from bears, wolves."

Hansen said reducing harvest — specifically, cow harvest — might be necessary to preserve the declining herd.

"Though we don't think that harvest put us in this position, we think that we're in a spot where harvest could make it hard to recover from this position," he said. "We certainly have the potential to exceed harvestable surplus."

Harvest reduction has been a topic of heated discussion in recent years. Proponents say immediate action is needed to protect the shrinking herd, while many local hunters speak against such regulations because residents in their communities rely on subsistence food. They also argue that limiting non-local hunters should come first.

[Alaska Federation of Natives asks Congress for 'immediate action' to expand subsistence protection]

Earlier this year, the Federal Subsistence Board considered a special temporary action to reduce the harvest for the duration of this past summer, but after receiving negative public comments to the proposal, the board voted against it.

Now, the Alaska Board of Game and the Federal Subsistence Board are considering longer-term proposals to reduce subsistence harvest limits for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Specifically, they're weighing whether to change the harvest in the Northwest Arctic and a portion of the North Slope in the next three years from five animals per day to four animals per year, just one of which could be a cow.

The Federal Subsistence Board is scheduled to meet in spring 2024, while the Board of Game will meet in January, Hansen said. The public comment period for the state runs through January 2024. If adopted by the board, the state hunting regulations will be effective July 1, 2024.

The proposals were discussed during the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council meeting in mid-October, said the chair of the council, Thomas Baker. The council decided to table the decision on whether they support the proposals until their March meeting, in hopes of discussing it more with other regions in the range of the herd.

"Due to overwhelming feedback from community members, from subsistence hunters, people that rely on subsisting from this herd, the negative feedback is that this is not the direction people would like to see us take," Baker said. "For one thing, it's not certain that four caribou a year per hunter is enough to provide for multi-generational homes, multi-family homes, smaller communities, where people may have to pool their resources together so that a small group of hunters goes out and harvest enough animals to provide for the majority of community."

"It does not, at this time, look like this is the appropriate action to take," Baker said.