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Bristol Bay RAC supports liberalizing harvest of Nushagak caribou

Aderman/U.S. Fish & Wildlife

A growing herd of about 1400 caribou on the Nushagak Peninsula has prompted proposals to increase bag limit and season length and to allow same-day airborne take.

The Bristol Bay Subsistence Regional Advisory Council last week supported two proposals that seek to increase harvest opportunity for caribou on the Nushagak Peninsula. 

Andy Aderman, a wildlife biologist for the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, counted caribou into a tape recorder on a recent aerial survey by helicopter.

He and another biologist watched from about 50 feet in the air, and tallied the sex and age of each caribou they could see on the Nushagak Peninsula.

"There were 46 calves per 100 cows, and on the bulls side, it was 66 bulls per 100 cows. The bulls number was certainly an increase from last year," said Aderman. 

Those ratios tell biologists that the herd will likely continue growing, as it has been for several years.

The most recent count was done in late June this year.

"It’s safe to say there was probably 1400 animals down there [in late June]," said Aderman. "Then we had a hunt in August and September, of which I know 41 caribou have been reported taken."

Aderman says the herd is nearing the size it was when it peaked in 1998, ten years after it was introduced and three years after the first hunt. The overpopulated peninsula then saw a sharp drop in caribou over the next decade, hitting a low of about 460.

"It really reduced the amount that could be harvested," says Aderman. "It was about as close as you could get to actually not having a season."

Now managers are trying to keep that history from repeating itself. That means trying to moderately bring down the numbers now so the herd doesn’t see another dramatic drop in coming years. Managers say 750 would be an ideal herd size.

To that end, the Bristol Bay subsistence regional advisory council last week took up two proposals that would increase harvest opportunities for federally qualified hunters for Nushagak Peninsula caribou.

The first proposal makes two changes.

"One of those changes is to go to a harvest limit of up to 3 caribou. Right now it’s up to two," explained Aderman. "The other change would add the months of October and November to the existing season. We’ve never had those months open before, but if these proposals go through, the season would start August 1 and go to March 31."

The second proposal would allow same-day airborne take of Nushagak Peninsula caribou from January 1-March 31, provided that hunters are more than 300 feet from the aircraft.

Both proposals were approved unanimously by the RAC.

While same-airborne take is supported by the RAC and the Nushagak and Togiak Fish and Game Advisory Committees, the state says it would be a very liberal policy. Drew Crawford gave comment from the Department of Fish and Game, saying there’s another option to increase harvest opportunity.

"An alternative to same-day airborne would be to remove the restriction that limits opportunity to federally qualified, and allow all state of Alaska hunters to participate in this hunt through a state season," said Crawford. 

Nushagak Peninsula caribou season is closed for now, but re-opens December 1. 

These proposals, with the support of the Bristol Bay RAC, will go before the Statewide Federal Subsistence Board at their statewide meeting in Anchorage January 12-13.   

Contact the author at hannah@kdlg.org. 

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