Federal board reduces Mulchatna caribou harvest limit

Nov 8, 2019

The Federal Subsistence Board voted Tuesday to pass a temporary special action reducing the bag limit for a herd that is vital to subsistence hunting in Southwest Alaska. 

Credit USFWS

The Federal Subsistence Board has reduced the bag limit for the Mulchatna caribou herd on federal lands from two to one in units 9 and 17.

“The reality of it is, is we need to decrease harvest," said Kenton Moos, the acting manager for the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.

Tuesday’s vote largely aligns federal and state regulations. But a modification to the federal action limits the hunt to federally qualified subsistence users in units 18, 19A and 19. Those units are also restricted to one bull; because a significant amount of hunting takes place in those areas, the board is trying to reduce the impact of harvest on cows.

The action comes two months after the Yukon Delta and Togiak wildlife refuges first requested the change. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order in August reducing the bag limit. The Mulchatna caribou herd’s population has declined sharply since the last state survey was taken in 2016. At that point, it numbered around 27,000. Now, half that – 13,500 animals – make up the herd.

Speaking at the Bristol Bay Subsistence Advisory Council meeting, wildlife management biologist Lauren Watine said Fish and Game was hoping to gain a better estimate of unreported harvests, among the other factors that might be contributing to the herd’s decline.

"It could be something with the age structure of the herd – that could be off-balance. There could be problems on the landscape, there could be disease, there could be reduced forage available,” Watine said.

The calf-to-cow ratio is one way of measuring the herd’s stability. The state’s goal is 30 calves to 100 cows. Watine said that in the eastern section of the herd, the ratio of 31 calves to 100 cows is down slightly from previous years. Still, it was more promising than the western section, where that ratio is a mere 18 to 100.

But the Federal board also gave the Togiak refuge manager the authority to change bag limits or close the season completely if the need arises. He still has to consult state and tribal entities before reaching a decision.

Moos said those management decisions will depend on the quality of hunting conditions, among other things. The better the conditions and harvest opportunity, the more likely the refuge will close the season.

"When we’re talking numbers that we’re seeing, every animal counts. And so I can’t say for sure we’re going to close things down, but there is a good possibility of it, absolutely,” he said.

Many hunters in the southwest region rely on Mulchatna caribou for meat. Suggestions to close the hunt entirely startled some at the regional subsistence meeting in Dillingham last week. Billy Trefon, a council member from Nondalton, does not support closing the hunt in his unit. He says harvesting caribou has become increasingly difficult. Trefon grew up with a caribou herd that calved between Telaquana and Twin Lakes. 

“Living in Nondalton in 9B, it’s already hard enough for us to even get caribou," Trefon said. "I grew up with a caribou herd. Thousands of them calved there. And I watched them calve. I watched the bears chase them around. I watched the wolves chase them around.”

Gayla Hoseth is the director of natural resources at the Bristol Bay Native Association. She suggested limiting the hunt to federally qualified users across the board.  

"We’re the people that are always being reduced of harvest, and we’re always paying the consequences price and we don’t really know what the population is," Hoseth said. "Anybody statewide could come and hunt these caribou on our federal lands with this permit. I think another survey needs to be done. But I think if we’re going to lock down anything then we need to have it for our user population first.”

The federal temporary action will remain in place until the board meets in April 2020.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200