If you spot caribou in the White Mountains this winter, it’s likely that they’re not technically local. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, some animals from the Fortymile Caribou Herd have been wintering in parts of the White Mountains National Recreation Area and northern Steese National Conservation Area for at least the last six years — and they’re wandering farther and farther west as time goes on.
The Fortymile herd’s normal early winter range is between the Steese Highway and the Canadian border. Jeff Gross, area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Tok, explained that while there hasn’t been an increase in the number of caribou that the department has tracked traveling outside the herd’s traditional range, they are broadening the range with each year that goes by.
“I wouldn’t say that this year that there were more caribou going west into the White Mountains,” Gross said, “but the ones that did go into the White Mountains during late fall and early winter, they definitely pushed further west than I’ve seen before. They were near the Eliot Highway.”
Tess Faulise, a program tech with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Tok, said that the department tracks the herd in a couple of different ways, including flyovers and roughly 150 satellite-linked collars, which allow staff to keep up to date on herd movements from afar.
Gross said that part of the reason for the herd’s expansion is its growing size.
The Fortymile Caribou Herd is now estimated at around 80,000 animals — and, as it has grown, the herd’s range has also expanded. Gross said that three years ago was the first time the department tracked Fortymile caribou traveling near the Elliot Highway. In 2017, some Fortymile caribou even made it as far as the Livengood area.
With regard to other factors that may be influencing how far Fortymile caribou travel, Gross said any other explanations would just be speculation at this point.
“They haven’t made any major changes, just a little expansion, which is pretty normal,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. As they move into a new area, they just push around the periphery.”
Not every caribou spotted around the White Mountain area is necessarily a wandering Fortymile caribou; these animals could also be part of the dwindling White Mountain Caribou Herd, which inhabit the upper Beaver Creek and Preacher Creek drainages all-year-round. That herd has decreased from more than 1,000 caribou to around 150-200. Some of these animals may have moved to join the Fortymile herd, although Fish and Game have not found conclusive evidence for this yet.
Meanwhile, the federal winter Fortymile Caribou Hunt began on Nov. 1. The state winter hunt was canceled because the entire harvest quota for 2019-2020 was met in the first few days of the fall hunt. Faulise said that the federal winter hunt hasn’t attracted many participants so far.
“I checked recently and we only have four harvests reported,” Faulise said. “Since it’s not a state hunt, you have a smaller number of people hunting. There’s not that many people who are qualified, and weather and road conditions play a hand too.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.