The action closes hunting of Mulchatna caribou for the rest of the season. It is the latest in a series of conservation measures taken, after surveys last summer showed a sharp decline in the Mulchatna herd's population.
The state will close the Mulchatna caribou hunt at midnight on January 31. The hunt is under permit RC503, and the state's closure is the latest in a series of state and federal conservation measures restricting the hunt since the summer, when surveys indicated a steep decline in the size of the herd.
“This isn’t a drastic measure. This is the right decision," said Lauren Watine, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Surveys last year showed the herd's population drop sharply — it now numbers around 13,500 animals, less than half the minimum population objective of 30,000.
“Really, the only thing biologically we can do is take off that extra pressure on the population, which is human harvest,” Watine said.
In August, the state took the first step towards lifting that pressure. It reduced the bag limit from two caribou to one. Federal managers did the same, and they closed on federal lands at the end of December.
Billy Trefon, a Nondalton member of the Bristol Bay Subsistence Advisory Council, wasn't surprised that the state shut down the season. Trefon said the closures could compound the struggles residents already had accessing caribou; over the past decade, he said, caribou have moved away from Nondalton, which is in unit 9B. That meant that residents have to travel up to 30 miles to hunt.
"It did hurt Nondalton area because we had to travel so far just to get caribou," he said. "I'm actually glad that they're going to close down the state [hunt], because like I said, if they were going to close down the Mulchatna caribou herd, not just federal lands should be closed."
The state waited to close the season completely because they wanted more public input at this month’s Board of Game meeting in Nome. At the meeting, several of the members supported closing the hunt, including board chair Ted Spraker.
“We all know, we live and die by the numbers. That’s the game we play here. And we’ve just got to have good numbers,” he said.
Another option members discussed at the meeting was restricting the season to bulls only. Watine said the herd’s bull-to-cow ratio is actually above state objectives. But the department opted to close the hunt fully, instead of restricting the hunt to bulls only, because they wanted to see the population expand.
“We don’t want to halt growth. We don’t want the Mulchatna population sitting at 13,500 animals. We want it to increase, and we want it to increase quickly,” she said.
Biologists still don’t know what caused the Mulchatna herd's rapid decline over the past two years, when they counted 25,000 animals. The herd's population has shifted drastically over the decades; in the early 1980s it was around 18,600 animals, not far from its current size. The herd grew over the next decade and a half, peaking at around 200,000 animals in the mid-1990s, then shrinking again. Over the past several years, it has ranged from 20 - 30,000.
Watine said the department is going to start surveying adult survival, in addition to calving numbers, to better understand the herd's most recent drop. They will also increase outreach in communities affected by the closure. The next population survey will take place this summer.
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