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Nushagak Peninsula federal subsistence caribou hunt opens in August

Andy Aderman/ USFWS

Qualified subsistence users will be able to hunt the Nushagak Peninsula caribou herd starting August 1. Initially the limit will be three caribou per hunter, but the refuge manager says that the limit may be raised mid-season.

The federal subsistence hunt on the Nushagak Peninsula, whose planning committee met Tuesday night, opens in August. The committee discussed regulations for the hunt, in particular the number of caribou each hunter is allowed to take and the total harvest limit. Ultimately, the decision came down to Togiak National Wildlife Refuge manager, Susanna Henry. She settled on a total harvest limit of 300 animals and a limit of three permits per hunter. In other words, any qualified subsistence user will be able to kill three caribou until 300 total caribou have been taken.

The goal of the Nushagak Peninsula Caribou Management Plan is to keep the caribou herd at a sustainable size. If it gets too small, then that could limit hunting opportunities on the peninsula. However, there is also the risk of boom and bust. If the herd gets too large, it could overgraze the lichen it depends on in winter months. Animals might then die of malnutrition or disease, or the herd could move off the peninsula altogether in search of food.

The concern last year was that the herd had grown too large. It was up to roughly 1300 animals, and the biologists’ goal is to keep it in the range of 400 to 900 caribou. To cut the herd down, the refuge allowed each hunter to take five caribou. The hunt was extended to October and November. In January, February and March hunters could shoot caribou on the same day that they flew into the area. A separate state hunt was also open over a wider area that included the Nushagak Peninsula.

At the end of the season, 371 caribou were reported taken, the most ever in a regulatory year. At yesterday’s meeting the lead biologist at the refuge, Pat Walsh, congratulated the committee on bringing the heard to an estimated 968 animals.

“What we did last year as a committee was risky, and there was a lot of work involved in all the regulatory changes that we did to increase the harvest in response to really an overpopulation issue of caribou on the peninsula. I’ve got to congratulate this committee because it worked. We’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do, and that was the work of everybody here,” said Walsh.

Some at the meeting were frustrated that last year’s limit of five caribou per hunter will be reduced to three.

“Giving the hunters five tags, you’d maximize participation from the subsistence users, because if you’re going to spend the gas to go down there and do a 150 mile hunt for two or three days, it makes it a lot more worthwhile if you can bring home five,” said Jack Savo Jr., the board president at Choggiung Limited. The village corporation in Dillingham owns some land on the peninsula. Savo argued that the overall harvest limit would keep the herd from being overhunted.

Bristol Bay Native Association and Curyung Tribal Council representative, Gayla Hoseth, was also displeased with the three permit limit.

“You heard from the groups around the table. All the people of your user groups of the planning committee that was formed here were all favoring four or five,” said Hoseth to Henry after the refuge manager made her decision. “With this being a planning committee, I’m just a little bit frustrated that we’re not being heard.”

Representatives from Manokotak, Aleknagik, Clark’s Point, Togiak and the Nushagak Advisory Committee also said that they would prefer the refuge issue four or five permits per hunter.

Neil Barten, wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, recommended limiting users to two or three caribou per hunter.

Henry responded to criticism that she would be happy to increase the number of caribou each hunter is allowed to take. However, she wants to remain flexible and base that decision on information she receives mid-season.

“Because I’m the in-season management for this particular hunt, we could take a look at our harvest reports that we’re receiving. We could also do another survey in October. We could also do another survey in the winter after we get complete snow cover,” said Henry.

Permits will be available through the tribal council offices in Togiak, Twin Hills, Manokotak, Aleknagik, Dillingham, Clark’s Point and Ekuk. The federal Nushagak Peninsula caribou hunt begins August 1 and is expected to run through March 31 with no closures.

Contact the author at avery@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.