Kenai Peninsula caribou numbers have grown so large that two herds that call the area home have become one, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
As a result of the Killey River caribou herd's expansion, the department issued an emergency order last month expanding the hunting area for Killey River caribou to the portion of Game Management Unit 15(B) that is within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The idea of expanding the available hunting area is to try and reduce the numbers of caribou in the area, according to Soldotna area biologist Ted Spraker of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Spraker said combining the two herds for hunting purposes was really all the department could do to try and manage the herd.
"They've mixed for the last three or four years. 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.
He said that the department has seen a trend in recent years indicating the overall health of the animals may be declining due to overpopulation.
"The concern we have is the limited amount of habitat. 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.
Spraker said that the department saw the average calf weight drop from 145 pounds in 1996 to 128 pounds in 2000, a key indication the animals were overrunning their available habitat.
The peninsula is now home to four herds of caribou. In addition to the Killey river herd, there are also Kenai lowlands, Kenai Mountains and Fox River bands of the animals roaming the peninsula. Caribou are native to the Kenai Peninsula, but were wiped out in the early 20th century by excessive hunting.
In 1985 and '86, a total of 80 caribou from the Nelchina herd near Lake Louise were released in the vicinity of the Killey River and Twin Lakes. Since then, the group has increased to over 700 caribou, about 200 more than the area's available habitat can sustain, according to Spraker.
"The range capacity for this area is about 500 caribou," Spraker said. He said that last time the department made a count of the animals, 709 were determined to be in the herd. The population in the area has gotten so large, that the two herds are now being considered one, Spraker said.
In recent years hunters have had little luck or interest interest in hunting the herd, 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 move 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 he hoped that by giving hunters more area in which to hunt, those numbers would increase. Spraker said that if the herd size is reduced, the animals should continue to do well.
"If you do a good job of range management, the herd will take care of itself," Spraker said.
The hunting season for caribou on the Kenai Peninsula opens Aug. 10 and closes Sept. 20.
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