More than 50 caribou killed by December avalanche

Posted: Friday, June 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Shattered antlers and hoofs poke out of the melting snow at the base of a steep, treeles slope in the western Kenai Mountains.

State and federal wildlife managers now estimate at least 50 caribou were killed there in a December avalanche.

Jim Hall, deputy manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, state wildlife biologist Ted Spraker and avalanche expert Doug Fesler flew to the site last week.

Much of the carnage has been exposed by warming temperatures and the remains have been gnawed on or devoured by bears, wolves, wolverines and bald eagles. Bones and strips of hide lie scattered.

''When the helicopter came in to land, caribou fur rose like dust in the air,'' Hall said.

Hall, Spraker and Fesler concluded that a string of caribou began traversing the steep, snowy ridge late in December, and their hooves triggered an avalanche that swept scores of the animals downhill at speeds approaching 90 mph.

How many caribou died still isn't known. But the count has exceeded 50.

''I think all the wrong things happened at the right time,'' Spraker said. ''It turned out to be kind of a catastrophic event.''

Judging by the mutilation, the caribou must have been near the top of the snow slide. Some rolled and bounced about 1,900 feet to the bottom of the slope, Fesler said. The avalanche began at an elevation of 4,600 feet and ended at 2,700 feet. The animals' remains were spread in an area 1,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet long.

Fesler, an avalanche hazard consultant with the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, said the slide probably happened around Dec. 23, when numerous slides were happening in the area. Warm, wet storms had dumped snow atop a thin layer of powder laid during a cold snap, he said.

After a count of skulls, they know that at least 53 of the Killey River caribou herd perished in this single slide. More bodies lie beneath the snow.

''I'd be surprised if there isn't at least another dozen or more,'' Spraker said.

The Killey herd numbers about 700 animals.

It is not uncommon to find the body of a hapless moose, mountain goat or Dall sheep at the base of an old snow slide. But Hall, Fesler and Spraker were unaware of any incident on this scale.

''It's a unique phenomenon,'' Hall said. ''This is the largest mortality from an avalanche that I'm aware of, as far as the number of animals goes.''

Still, it easily could have gone unnoticed if not for a joint state-federal project to radio-collar young caribou. Researchers dart and weigh the animals in the fall and spring to see how they've fared over the winter. It helps managers gauge the herd's health.

In March, biologists flying in the area picked up mortality signals from six of the 12 radio transmitters attached to collared caribou. They all came from the base of the snow slide. The beacons are set off when a collar doesn't move for hours.

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