Fortymile Caribou Herd

Three caribou in the Fortymile Herd range, in a photograph captured by department staff.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game may cancel the Fortymile Caribou Herd winter state hunt, after an unexpectedly high harvest was reported in Zones 1 and 4 during the early stage of the fall hunt. A public notice states that the entire 2019-20 annual herd quota is expected to be met by the end of the fall hunting season, which would leave no additional annual harvest quota.

“If we end up canceling it, it’s a fairly unusual thing,” Fish and Game Tok Area Management Biologist Jeff Gross said. “It’s been a while.”

Gross said the last time the state was forced to cancel the winter hunt was roughly 10 years ago.

“During the fall opener, on the Steese Highway we just had a record number of hunters turn out,” he said. “And, switching from bulls only to an ‘any caribous’ bag limit, it ended up resulting in a much higher harvest than anticipated.”

Zone 1, accessible from the Steese Highway and Chena Hot Springs Road, and Zone 4, the White Mountains, were closed just five days into the fall hunt because the combined quota of 860 caribou in those zones was expected to be met. According to Fish and Game, caribou are “abundant” in Zone 2, located in roadless portions of Game Management Units 20B, 20D north of the Tanana River, and western Unit 20E, and “widely scattered” in Zone 3, the Taylor Highway area in a part of Unit 20E.

The annual Fortymile quota is 2,180 caribou, with 1,635 allocated to the fall hunt and 545 to the winter hunt. The fall quota of 1,635 is divided as follows: Zones 1 and 4 combined is 860, Zone 2 is 200 and Zone 3 is 575. The fall bag limit for residents is currently one caribou of either sex. The nonresident bag limit remains one bull.

At about 83,000 animals, the Fortymile Herd is the largest caribou herd in Interior Alaska. According to Gross, the expedient closure of Zones 1 and 4 has become a regular occurrence in the past several years. The herd continues to grow, which Gross said is why management shifted from population growth to stabilization and control.

“As time goes on, the percentage of the herd that we’re trying to harvest is going to be higher than what we’ve had in the past. We had it set at a lower level to encourage the growth of the herd for decades,” Gross told the News-Miner in August. “Now that we’re reaching peak-size of the herd, we’re going to try to hold it at a similar level or actually try to reduce it some.”

Gross said that the decision to include cows in the harvest for residents is likely a contributing factor to the high rate of harvest during the fall hunt. He pointed out that the area around the Steese Highway has seen a lot of hunting success over the past two years; word of that spreading may have also led to what he referred to as a “record high” level of participation this year. On top of this, areas like Nelchina have given hunters less opportunity to take caribou, which Gross said may have prompted some hunters to head north.

“With the fires down south, some people have speculated that maybe additional hunters came up from that area,” Gross said, though he reiterated that is currently just speculation. “I think the public probably got the idea that there were a lot of caribou around these sites and that you could shoot any caribou — if I was a caribou hunter from somewhere else around the state, I probably would have come up here.”

The department will announce whether or not there will be a winter hunt on or before Thursday. Gross said that management biologists are currently evaluating population data, working with staff in the Yukon which shares the annual quota, but are still waiting for all reports to come in from hunters.

“Hunter’s still have several more weeks to report whether they’re successful,” he said. “We just had a high harvest, much higher than anticipated.”

The State Fortymile Caribou hunt in Zones 2 and 3 closed on Sept. 30 at 11:59 p.m., as did the Federal subsistence hunt. Successful hunters must report within three days of the kill in person at the Fish and Game office in Tok, online at bit.ly/2MpstjF or by phone at 907-883-2971. Unsuccessful hunters must return their reports to the Tok office or online at bit.ly/2MpstjF by Oct. 15.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

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