Action is needed to reverse the precipitous decline seen over the last decade in the Nelchina Caribou Herd.
What was once a herd of 50,000 or more caribou has dwindled, in a handful of years, to a current population estimated at, perhaps, 30,000 to 35,000 animals.
Harvest restrictions announced by state game managers earlier this week -- though they hit hunters from this area hardest -- would appear to be in order.
But this step alone isn't likely to reverse the Nelchina herd's decline.
The federal allowance for subsistence hunting in portions of the Nelchina's range undermines the state's move. Hunters qualifying for federal subsistence permits are still allowed to take up to two caribou apiece, providing a glaring example of the management conflict posed by dual state and federal control.
More to the point, the focus on harvest restrictions shows game officials are literally stalking the wrong species.
Professional biologists have consistently identified predators as the main factor limiting moose and caribou populations within Game Unit 13. The Board of Game has repeatedly authorized wolf control for the area, only to witness successive administrations shy from carrying out the policy.
As recently as this March, the Game Board again called for implementation of a five-year wolf control program aimed at sustaining high levels of ''consumptive use of moose and caribou'' in Unit 13. The board's directive was accompanied by a telltale finding: ''Habitat does not appear to be the primary limiting factor for moose populations now, and is not expected to limit moose populations at the proposed objectives.''
While the board's finding was aimed at moose population dynamics, a similar case can be made against the claims advanced by game officials who insist on portraying the herd's decline as a habitat issue.
The effects are well known of poor forage during summer, or harsh winters. Both yield high winter mortality. A cow entering the summer calving season in poor shape generally evidences diminished maternal instinct. But neither high winter mortality, nor poor calving performance is apparent among the Nelchina caribou of late.
The herd is still producing healthy numbers of calves, biologists report, but those that don't succumb to grizzly bears during early summer face unrelenting predation from wolves all winter.
Bullets aren't causing the calf mortality directly responsible for the herd's decline. The Nelchina caribou are buckling under pressure of predatory tooth and claw.
Blame for the Nelchina caribou's plummet can be placed not on hunters, but on the state's reluctance applying predator control.
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