Biologists look to hunters to thin Killey River caribou herd

Posted: Monday, April 01, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State game biologists say they are looking to hunters to thin the Killey River caribou herd on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Killey River herd has grown sharply since the state first transplanted 80 caribou from the Nelchina herd to the Kenai Mountains 16 years ago and biologists fear they may overgraze their habitat.

The herd has swelled to more than 700 animals. State biolgists say the herd's normally sleek calves are thinner than they once were, and the historically static group has begun migrating each winter in search of nutritious lichens that sustain caribou over the coldest months.

The Killey River herd travels so widely that it became indistinguishable from its smaller neighbor to the north, the Twin Lakes herd. The two are now officially considered one unit, named for the river once considered a dividing line between them.

State and federal biologists monitoring the caribou say they want hunters to thin the Killey herd to 500, a number that better suits the growth of wild grasses and lichens in its range. The herd grazes the slopes of the western Kenai Mountains between Tustumena and Skilak lakes.

The number needs to be reduced to keep the caribou from wandering beyond their traditional range, said Ted Spraker, area management biologist on the Peninsula. An expanding herd can confuse management of nearby herds and might crowd out other lichen-eating species like Dall sheep, Spraker said.

Biologists want to allow more hunting over the next two seasons to thin the Killey herd, but accomplishing that goal may not be easy.

Rugged terrain inside the roadless wilderness of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge makes it difficult for hunters to get into the area. Motorized vehicles, such as four-wheelers, are prohibited.

Historically, only hunters willing to tote a backpack miles up steep trail or willing to spend more than $1,500 to hire a guide with pack horses could reach their prey.

''It's just hard to get to,'' Spraker said.

Spraker has developed a plan that should make it easier for hunters, now that the state has declared the Twin Lakes and the Killey River caribou one herd.

The herd's expanded range gives hunters new access points. A floatplane can land on Twin Lakes, and boats on Skilak Lake can reach the Cottonwood Creek trail, a steep two-mile hike up to Twin Lakes, Spraker said.

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