Dwindling Population of Northwest Alaska’s Caribou: Cause, Effect, and Proposed Solution

Post by Amanda Norton

Over two centuries, Alaska’s caribou herds have shrunk by 2.6 million animals. According to several years of research, the herds have been falling in recent decades owing to a complex combination of causes including poaching, illness, reduced food availability, and climate change; when the herds had relatively low recruitment, they had been heavily harvested by recreational hunters and natural predators. Aerial photographs have captured the movements and declines of herds in regions where caribou give birth. Their reductions have an impact not just on the landscape but also on the people who rely on it. Dwindling herd numbers pose a threat to the food security and culture of indigenous peoples who have relied on the herds.

Caribou Males Sparring photograph by Matthias Breiter, October 26th, 2012.
Caribou Males Sparring photograph by Matthias Breiter, October 26th, 2012.

I found that many authors focused their research on abiotic and biotic features that influence the movement of ungulates, particularly hunting forces, and aircraft activity in northwestern Alaska. For the autumn hunting season, it was best that the authors used spatial data to understand caribou selection of resources in the Noatak National Preserve. The authors found that Noatak doesn’t host many non-local hunters and the movement of caribou in the area is

driven to a small patch that contains an area dominated by tussock tundra and dwarf shrubs. Those articles helped me focus my hunting stakeholder groups and provided an interesting perspective on caribou hunting, as well as a different perspective on caribou decline. Perhaps the decline is a natural part of caribou recycling. I find that this question could be best answered by other interested people, such as a stakeholder group; which I am sure many who are interested in scicomm will understand. I find that bringing this attention to many communities, especially the scicomm community, can involve everyone in a positive manner. Maybe by bringing this topic to light, those that have had similar ideas can finally find a way to get involved and bring their opinions to the table so we then can figure out a solution.

For me personally, and as a hunter and upcoming biologist, I have become concerned with the declining caribou numbers and would like to help resolve this issue. Caribou are amazing and beautiful creatures, and it would be awful to see them decline even more, and face being critically endangered or possibly go extinct. I am hoping that hunters, nature enthusiasts, and others alike will come together and realize that caribou play a major ecological role in Alaska, and to see them decline would be devastating.

This topic has been tossed around by many biologists that study ungulates, but none have concluded the actual cause of the decline. Hopefully, by pushing this topic further and involving the scientific community, the issue can be concluded, and a direct solution is applied.

Screenshot of poster the student author created. Includes contact information for relevant agencies and some statistics also mentioned in the main text of the article.
Poster by the author

Amanda Norton is a student in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming.

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