Caribou census yields steady herd numbers

Posted: Friday, June 30, 2000

The Kenai Lowlands caribou herd is about the same size as last year, but apparently feeling less sociable.

Ted Spraker, area game biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, surveyed the caribou on June 20. The herd hangs out near the towns of Kenai and Soldotna and is a favorite of wildlife watchers.

"It looks like we are probably stable," he said.

From the air he counted 106 adults and 25 calves, somewhat fewer than last year.

"They are actually down by nine, which probably doesn't mean anything," he said. "I could easily have missed nine. I don't feel confident that I am seeing 100 percent."

This year's count was particularly challenging, he said, because the herd did not come together in the traditional large gathering biologists call the post calving aggregation.

"They were not grouped up as well as I've seen them in the past," he said.

Spraker had to track cows and calves down in a dozen groups distributed from near the Twin Cities Raceway north of the Kenai Spur Highway to the Kasilof wetlands between the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road. Five of the animals wear radio collars, and he found all of them.

The caribou, which are the wild cousins of reindeer, looked healthy, he said.

The Kenai Lowlands caribou herd is one of five on the Kenai Peninsula. Unlike others, it frequents the central peninsula from Sterling to Kasilof, sharing much of its range with a high human population.

Spraker cautioned Kenai-area motorists to be alert for the animals, especially on Bridge Access Road, along Marathon Road and on Kalifornsky Beach Road near the KSRM radio station.

The Kenai Lowlands herd is the only one biologists survey this time of year. The other peninsula herds, which range from the mountains near Hope to the Fox River Valley east of Homer, are counted in the fall, he said.

Numbers in the Kenai Mountains, Killey River and Fox River herds are high enough to sustain limited permit hunts. Permits for the 2000 season already have been determined based on last year's counts, he said.

For now, the Kenai Lowlands herd is too small to be hunted under current regulations.

"We stay with the numbers," Spraker said. "When the herd grows there will be opportunities.

"There will be no changes for caribou, basically, for the fall."

The 140 counted last year were more than historic norms for the herd, so finding 131 this year suggests the herd is holding its own, he said.

Caribou were native to the Kenai Peninsula, but heavy hunting wiped out the indigenous herds in the early 20th century. The animals now in the central peninsula herd are descended from a group transplanted from the Glennallen area to Watson Lake in 1966.

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