Conservation officer says Porcupine caribou late again this year

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2001

BARROW (AP) -- Time is running out for the Porcupine caribou herd, according to the conservation officer for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

Darius Kassi said the caribou are late again this year getting to their calving grounds on Alaska's coastal plain.

If the weather doesn't warm and they don't get moving, the caribou could get caught in the same circumstances of last year when the death rate among calves almost doubled in the first month to an estimated 15,000 caribou. The approximately 15,000 calves that died in the first month last year represented a mortality rate of 44 percent.

The herd when last counted in 1998 number about 129,000 animals.

The herd recently was still south of the Porcupine River and it was not yet safe for crossing, Kassi said.

If the cows get delayed by too long, they won't make it to the calving grounds before giving birth. That would mean another catastrophic year for calf survival, Kassi said.

''If the cows drop their calves now, the wolves, wolverines, the foxes and bears are just going to have a field day with the young ones,'' Kassi said.

In addition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge providing less susceptibility to predators, the coastal plain also provides the cows with much-needed nutrients that are just not available in the forage south of the treeline.

Calves born south of the Porcupine are often not able to cross the river safely, and are abandoned by the cows which continue to migrate, even if it's after they've calved, he said.

''I witnessed it last year,'' Kassi said. ''Very few of them (calves) were crossing the Porcupine because it was too dangerous; too wide, too deep and the current was too fast... I drove up and down the river and I saw calves just sitting there, sometimes two by themselves. It looks like it is going to be another bad year.''

If the herd can get across the river and close to the grounds before calving, to the foothills inside the Vuntut and Ivvavik national parks, chances for calf survival increase greatly, he said.

The herd has been known to move from as far south as the Dempster Highway area to the coastal plain in 10 days.

Don Russell of the Canadian Wildlife Service said there is still time for the herd to move. In recent years, June 2 has represented the peak calving time. But last year it wasn't until June 7.

Old Crow residents who recently watched the ice begin flowing saw a cow caribou caught on an ice flow, drifting down river.

''She was in the middle of the flow, struggling to make it to shore but she did not make it,'' Kassi said.

As the cow slipped into the river, she was covered by drifting ice.

''People had to turn their heads when they saw that cow fall into the river,'' he said.

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