Monday was the first day of the state’s fall Fortymile Caribou Registration Hunt, and various Fairbanksans noticed the horde of hopeful hunters parked along the Steese Highway.
For those wondering what all the fuss is about: Last week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that the quota for this year’s fall Fortymile caribou registration hunt is 5,000 caribou — more than double last year’s fall and winter quota combined. The move is part of a long-term strategy to control the number of caribou in the herd, which has ballooned over the years to over 83,000 animals, leading to nutritionally stressed herd.
For those familiar with the Fortymile herd, the number of hunter vehicles lined up along the Steese Highway — which is Zone 1 of the hunting area — should come as no surprise.
Last year the Fortymile quota was 2,180 caribou, with 1,635 allocated to the fall hunt and 545 to the winter hunt. The department ultimately canceled the winter hunt after record participation in the fall led to the entire harvest quota for 2019-2020 being met in the first few days. According to the department, high hunter participation and abundant caribou accessible from the Steese Highway resulted in a harvest of 2,178 caribou over just a few days in August last year.
This year, hunter success looks even more likely. The harvest quota of 5,000 caribou includes 3,000 in Zones 1 and 4 combined — the Steese Highway/Chena Hot Springs Road area. The quota also includes 1,700 harvestable animals in Zone 3, the Taylor Highway, and up to 300 in Zone 2, the roadless area. For the current season, resident hunter are also being given the opportunity to harvest two caribou of any sex as long as they’re carrying two valid permits.
In the news release announcing the quota, Jeff Gross, the department’s Fortymile caribou manager, noted that “Caribou are readily available along the Steese Highway now.”
Hunters took the tip to heart.
Susan Paskvan was out hiking in the area on Sunday morning when she spotted the multitude of vehicles along the Steese Highway.
“I think every caribou hunter who lives on the roadways of Alaska that also owns a motor home or camper, four-wheel or side-by-side is on the Steese Highway for the opening tomorrow,” she wrote in a Facebook post alongside the photographs. “Prayers that everyone has a safe hunt, treats the animal respectfully by shooting safely and harvesting with care, and treats the land so it will not be harmed by the four-wheeler traffic.”
Another resident who lives nearby, Joan Skilbred, said a friend of hers counted “more than 300” RVs on the road between Denali and Fairbanks over the weekend.
“It is a stunning sight,” she wrote in an email. “And my son who has been going up the Steese highway for years has never ever seen anything like this.”
Last week, Gross said that managers are aiming to be flexible this year in order to maximize the length of the overall season. As such, quotas for individual zones may be adjusted between the road-accessible Zones 1, 3 and 4 once the hunt is underway in order to extend season length in zones with the highest harvest.
According to Alaska Department of Public Safety Communications Director Megan Peters, Alaska Wildlife Troopers are expecting to contact “hundreds of hunters in a very short period of time to confirm they are licensed, permitted, hunting safely and have properly validated once they harvest.”
“We have several troopers out on ATV, patrol vehicles and aircraft addressing issues to make sure this is an orderly hunt. We do not anticipate an extraordinary number of violations as the bag limit for residents was recently increased to two caribou and it can be either sex for residents,” Peters wrote in an email.
“That said, we encourage hunters to read the regulations prior to hunting,” she wrote. “Common violations tend to include shooting from, down or across a roadway and fail to validate the permits once a person harvests a caribou.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.