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Combined State and Federal team takes count of Mulchatna herd

Neil Barten

Summer isn’t just about salmon for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

Wildlife biologist Neil Barten and other wildlife managers and researchers from several agencies have been working on surveying the Mulchatna Caribou herd. 

“They were in their usual spots – for the last few years anyway,” Barten said.

The team has been keeping track of radio-collared caribou by checking their GPS locations using satellite transmitters, and also by flying surveys. Essentially, they want to know where the caribou are, and if the animals are grouping up or not.

“This time of year when the bugs get really bad and it gets kind of hot, the caribou will aggregate in large groups," Barten said. "It makes it easy for us to find them and take photos of them and get a count on the herd.” 

That makes for a fun project for researchers and managers who fly overhead and look for the animals, he said.

“It’s a really neat time to see them all get together and in some ways it’s kind of fun in that they’ll get in groups that have the same shape as whatever snowfield they’re on, and it can be kind of artistic,” he said. "It’s really neat.”

The project is done in cooperation with many entities: Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff from Dillingham and other communities, and federal employees from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management. Combined, Barten said they can attempt to cover the entire range of the Mulchatna Caribou herd – from Lake Clark to Dillingham, and up and around to Bethel and Aniak.

The team notes which radio-collars are where, logs the number and location of groups of animals, and takes lots of photos.

“You can fly along and you see what looks like a whole lots of ants on a snowfield," Barten said. "When you get close it turns out there can be several thousand just body on body on the snowfield."

All that information goes into a population estimate for the herd. Last summer, the estimate was about 30,000 caribou in the herd.

“We try to do it every summer, but a lot of times the weather doesn’t cooperate,” Barten said. “So if you try it every summer you might get lucky and get an estimate every second or third summer.”

The population estimate is used to help set regulations for hunting the herd – including bag limits and other restrictions as necessary. According to Barten, the latest survey has indicated pretty good bull to cow ratios, and the population seems to be growing. That generally means some opportunity to hunt.