KENAI (AP) -- The caribou population in the Kenai Peninsula has expanded so much that game managers are liberalizing hunting rules to thin the herd.
As a result of growth in the Killey River herd, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided last month to expand the hunting area for those caribou to include territory within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to reduce caribou numbers in the area, according to Soldotna area biologist Ted Spraker.
''The Killey River herd has moved into the winter range of the Twin Lakes herd. Now (hunters) can hunt in the area previously accessed by the Twin Lakes herd, since they move back and forth so much. It's about all the options we have,'' Spraker said.
The biologist thinks the overall health of the animals may be declining due to overpopulation.
''We know that the average calf weight is less now than it was five years ago. The downward trend suggests the range is being fully utilized,'' Spraker said. Calf weights averaged 145 pounds in 1996, but just 128 pounds in 2000.
The peninsula is now home to four herds of caribou. In addition to the Killey river herd, the region holds the Kenai lowlands, Kenai Mountains and Fox River bands.
Caribou are native to the Kenai Peninsula, but were wiped out in the early 20th century before being reintroduced.
In 1985 and 1986, 80 caribou from the Nelchina herd were released in the vicinity of the Killey River and Twin Lakes. Since then, the population has increased to over 700 caribou, about 200 more than Spraker figures the habitat can sustain.
In recent years hunters have mostly ignored the caribou, mainly due to the remoteness of the herd's range. The new area that will be open for hunting includes the land between Killey River and Skilak Lake. This won't make it much easier to hunt the caribou, Spraker said, but it might help a little.
''The only access to the area is by horseback, boat or to fly in. It's still really a long, laborious effort,'' Spraker said.
Last year, hunters killed just nine bulls and 43 cows from the Killey River herd.
Spraker said that if the herd size is reduced, the animals should continue to do well.
The hunting season for caribou on the Kenai Peninsula opens Aug. 10 and closes Sept. 20.
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