JUNEAU (AP) -- Almost 2,000 dead caribou have been spotted along the coast of northwest Alaska near Cape Thompson, and a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game said Friday the animals may have died from starvation.
The animals were part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, the largest in the state, numbering more than 450,000.
''This is the only area within the herd's range where we've observed unusual mortality,'' said area biologist Jim Dau, based in Kotzebue. ''It represents a tiny fraction of the herd -- less than 1 percent -- but we're taking it seriously nonetheless.''
Hunters from Point Hope and Kotzebue began calling last January to report calf and yearling caribou starving to death. Aerial surveys Dau conducted in April agreed with the hunters' reports.
''The proportion of calves in the Cape Thompson area was the lowest we'd ever measured,'' Dau said. Surveys recorded six calves per 100 adults. In other areas of the herd's range, spotters counted 19 calves per 100 adults.
Dau and several village residents flew over the area last weekend looking for carcasses. They spotted 1,854 between Point Hope and Kivalina. Dau said the total number of dead caribou cannot be known for sure but it is undoubtedly higher.
''If we counted half of the carcasses in the area, that would mean about 4,000 caribou starved,'' Dau said.
That's still less than 1 percent of the herd, Dau said, and the die-off will have no impact on the overall population.
Pathologists are collecting tissue samples to determine whether environmental contamination or disease figured into the caribou deaths.
Dau said the proportion of dead caribou appears to be smaller than in the 1994-1995 die-off. That winter, Dau counted 1,100 carcasses and estimated the die off at 2,000 to 3,000 animals out of about 10,000 in the immediate area.
He estimated 20,000 caribou were in the Point Thompson area this year.
''Even though it was not a surprise to find dead caribou in the area, the sight of so many carcasses littering the tundra and ridges was unsettling,'' Dau said.
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