Kenai's caribou: New arrivals on old turf

Posted: Friday, June 16, 2000

The bull stood at the end of our driveway in Kasilof, browsing on a lawn. His antlers were so huge he looked like he had coat racks stuck on his head. In the car, we were able to edge close enough to see the flies walking across his tawny fur.

Such sightings of caribou are increasingly common on the central peninsula.

But what many people watching the handsome deer do not realize is that the Kenai Peninsula is home to five herds, and none of them are native to the area, said Ted Spraker, area game biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Caribou apparently lived here for centuries. But hunters wiped them out in the early years of the 20th century.

"Between 1912 and 1915, the last indigenous caribou were seen on the Kenai Peninsula," he said. "I believe the miners played a major role in the disappearance of the caribou."

Gold miners swarmed over the backcountry, shooting game in droves to feed mining camps, destroying predators wherever they found them and sparking fires that changed the landscape. They also extirpated the peninsula's native wolf population.

Spraker speculated that the original caribou herds were small and vulnerable.

For 50 years, no caribou lived on the peninsula.

Efforts to restore the herds date back to 1951, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studies to see if the area had proper habitat to support new caribou.

In 1965, state Fish and Game captured 15 animals (12 cows and three bulls) from the Nelchina herd near Glennallen and airlifted them to the peninsula. Biologists released them on the northern peninsula near Chickaloon Flats. They moved eastward and gave rise to a thriving herd in the alpine and subalpine areas west of Hope.

In 1966, state biologists captured another group and set off to move 26 cows and three bulls to the Caribou Hills by truck.

"The truck broke down at Watson Lake on the Sterling Highway," Spraker said.

"It was a serious breakdown. So they decided to unload right there. So, by a twist of fate, the second effort to relocate ended up at Watson Lake."

Those caribou moved into the area between Swanson River and Kenai, giving rise to the Kenai Lowlands herd, which lives closest to human population centers.

Biologists deemed the two reintroductions successful, but the two areas that had supported most 19th century caribou -- the Caribou Hills and the benchlands between Tustumena and Skilak lakes -- still had no herds.

Twenty years later, state Fish and Game partnered with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service for two more relocations.

In 1985, animals were darted from helicopters near Lake Louise, just south of Glennallen. Biologists had arranged for a military helicopter to fly the caribou south, but it was canceled due to a political hassle and the animals ended up in an open stock truck. The trip was a disaster, with 16 dying in the truck from flailing or trampling, Spraker said.

The 28 surviving caribou were turned loose on the flats in front of Tustumena Glacier.

In 1986, biologists tried a different approach. They caught the animals in nets and put them into individual travel crates for relocation. Sixteen were released at Caribou Lake northeast of Homer, and 36 were released at two small lakes north of Tustumena Glacier. The results were much more successful, with no casualties in transit, Spraker said.

Biologists have learned ways to safely restrain the caribou without relying on tranquilizers, he said. They hobble their feet, put them in a "transport bag" that acts like a straitjacket and put hoods over their heads. The hoods protect the animals' eyes and, when they cannot see, they become quiet and docile.

For the first few years after release, the caribou wandered, showing up in odd places like Cohoe and sometimes joining the older herds. Eventually they settled down into groups.

The ones at Caribou Lake moved into the Fox River Valley and formed a small herd. The animals north of Lake Tustumena gave rise to two herds, a small one near Twin Lakes and one near the Killey River, which has become the peninsula's fastest growing herd.

The five herds are tiny compared with the hundreds of thousands in the Western Arctic and Porcupine herds north of the Brooks Range, but they are, on the whole, doing well.

The populations on the peninsula are stable or growing, Spraker said.

The objectives of the reintroduction project were to restore the caribou to their traditional range on the peninsula, to provide stock for hunters and to provide wildlife viewing opportunities.

Fish and Game recommends limited permit hunts to the state Board of Game when numbers and the percentages of bulls are high enough, he said.

The Kenai Mountain herd has supported hunting since 1972, and from 1988 to 1992 the Kenai Lowlands herd was opened to three to five permits per year. It was last hunted in 1992 with three permits, he said.

Spraker will be flying over the peninsula within the next week to count caribou herds. The tally will determine what hunts will be permitted this year.

"We have taken a very conservative approach to hunting," he said.

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