ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State and federal game biologists say at least a dozen Killey River caribou died in a March 5 avalanche.
Biologists inspected the remote Kenai Mountain valley near Twin Lakes last week, where the avalanche occurred. Caribou antlers poked from the snow as a helicopter hovered over the avalanche chute, churning up loose snow in its rotor wash. There were three medium-sized bulls near the surface.
''We could just see the antlers and heads sticking out,'' said Ted Spraker, area management biologist. Spraker also surveyed the scene from the ground as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials made flybys aboard a Piper Super Cub.
They saw strips of hides and bone pieces strewn about, left behind by a brown bear that had pawed holes into the snow to reach the fresh meat, Spraker said. Wolverines also had prowled around.
''There's also a pack of 12 wolves there, in the same area. I'm sure they've been making use of the caribou,'' he said.
The Killey River herd is the largest on the Kenai Peninsula, numbering about 700 animals. Biologists say there is only enough winter habitat to properly support about 500 caribou.
If the slide turns out to have claimed a significant percentage of the herd, state biologists have plenty of leeway to alter the fall hunt, Spraker said.
He said he has never seen anything quite like it.
The occasional Dall sheep or mountain goat will take a misstep or succumb to a snowslide, he said. He has never heard of a single avalanche wiping out so many caribou. But given their habit of foraging in winter for lichen along wind-swept ridges, he said, it wasn't too surprising.
''It seems like they really utilize the habitat that's available and sometimes it puts them in places they really shouldn't be. I'm sure they trigger avalanches from crossing some of these open ridges,'' Spraker said.
Biologists found out about this avalanche because it claimed half a group of 12 calves they had collared last fall. On March 5, six of the dozen radio collars began emitting mortality signals, a faster-paced beep set off when the collar is stationary for hours.
The six are still buried deep beneath the snow, Spraker said.
Spraker thinks that the majority of animals killed in the avalanche were calves and cows.
The caribou were swept to their death in a 1,300-foot slide.
Spraker said he expects the count to rise as higher temperatures melt the snow.
''There's no speculation on how many have died,'' he said. There are 10 or 12 animals we have evidence of. It'll be August before we sort it all out for sure.''
State and federal agencies will keep tabs on the snowmelt. They can count skulls, pelvic bones and spines left behind by scavengers to reach a final death toll.
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