- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - The state’s largest caribou herd suffered a 27 percent decline in numbers between 2011 and 2013, and if that trend continues, state officials said Monday they might have to restrict hunting.

The Western Arctic Herd had about 235,000 animals, according to a census conducted last July by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

That is down from the 2011 census of about 325,000 caribou and a peak of 490,000 animals estimated in 2003.

“Caribou numbers fluctuate naturally,” Jim Dau, a Fish and Game biologist who has worked with the herd for more than 25 years, said in a release.

He said the technology to accurately count the herd has only been available since 1970, and this decline falls “within the range of change documented for this herd in the past.”

During 2011-12, there was a high mortality rate for adult cows and a low survival rate for calves. There was deep snow that year, along with a high count of wolves and grizzly bears where the herd spent the winter.

“I’m often asked, ‘Why the decline?’ In truth, we don’t have data to completely answer that question. But it appears that summer and winter weather combined with predators have affected survival during recent years,” Dau said. “Disease does not appear to be a factor, caribou have generally been in good body condition throughout this decline, and we don’t think harvests initiated it. But, if harvests remain stable, they will increasingly affect the population trend as herd size goes down.”

Fish and Game officials said if these trends continue, they might reduce the harvest number. The herd is open to both subsistence and sport hunters.

If that happens, it would be the first hunting restrictions on the herd in more than 30 years.

The Western Arctic Herd fell to a low of 75,000 caribou in 1976. The cause has not determined, and the herd rebounded steadily to the 2003 peak. When biologists detected a decline in the 2007 census, they stepped up monitoring. The herd is now counted every two years instead of three. Biologists also make more trips into the field to evaluate individual animals.

The heard has a range of more than 140,000 square miles in northwest Alaska. That range extends from the Arctic ocean to the lower Yukon River and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

There are about 40 communities and 13,000 people living that area.

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