Nelchina caribou herd fails to migrate for winter

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Instead of migrating as usual, most of the Nelchina caribou herd is staying put around Summit Lake and Paxson this winter.

''They're as thick as flies out there,'' said Lee Harper, who lives on the edge of Summit Lake, about 175 miles south of Fairbanks. ''They've been in my yard. They've been in the driveway. They're all over the place.''

Biologists say they don't know why thousands of caribou are wandering the area. Normally, the Nelchina herd winters around Tok, 100 miles to the east.

''This is the first time they've stayed here in a while,'' wildlife biologist Bob Tobey told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''There was a period in the early 1980s that they stayed here for a number of years and never went over there.''

Tobey, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Glennallen, estimates that some 20,000 caribou -- about two-thirds of the herd -- remained in the Paxson area this winter. He suspects they will remain there until spring approaches and then head to their calving grounds south of the Talkeetna Mountains.

''With caribou, if they don't move by December that's where they're going to spend the winter,'' Tobey said.

The roving caribou can be a hazard for motorists on the Richardson Highway. About a half dozen caribou have been killed in collisions with cars or trucks, Alaska State Troopers said.

A 10-mile stretch of narrow, winding road from Summit Lake to Paxson is the place most of the caribou are loitering, Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper Bernard Chastain said.

Part of the problem is that the caribou are attracted to salt that is mixed with sand and spread on the roads, said local resident Harper, who works for the Department of Transportation.

Until a few years ago, the Nelchina herd was the largest of the Interior's caribou herds. It numbered an estimated 55,000 in 1995, but biologists say depleted range and predators have caused the herd to decline to about 33,000 at last count.

There are signs the herd is increasing, however. The fall count of 33,000 was an increase of about 4,000 over last year, due in large part to a high survival rate for a bumper crop of calves.

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