The caribou herd that didn't exist until state biologists created it in the mid-1980s has grown to more than 600 animals.
The herd, which feeds on grasses and lichens along a massive and remote alpine ridge north of Tustumena Lake, started off as 132 caribou relocated from the Nelchina herd near Glennallen in 1985 and 1986.
The herd grew and after about 15 years split off into three herds: Twin Lakes, Killey River and Fox River. After another relocation effort, there are now five distinct herds on the Peninsula, numbering close to 1,200 caribou.
The Killey River subset is the largest, numbering 632 in an aerial survey conducted this month by Ted Spraker, a state wildlife biologist.
''It's really, really taken off,'' Spraker said.
Caribou once were native to the Kenai Peninsula but were hunted out of existence by 1913. The state's focus since the 1960s has been primarily to foster the relocated herds.
But factors suggest the Killey River herd, which enjoys good winter feeding, may be growing faster than its food supply, Spraker said. First, formulas based on past research suggest the herd should be 500 strong instead of well over 600.
Also, surveys of 10-month-old cows that have survived their first winter indicate the food supply is dwindling. On average, young Killey River cows weighed this fall were 15 pounds lighter than same-age cows were in 1996, he said.
''I think that is a clear indication that the density of caribou on this range is too high,'' he said.
Spraker said he will propose that the state Board of Game consider essentially open season on cows next fall. Hunters could pick up a free permit and have a bag limit of three cows, but it won't be easy. The animals are hard to reach. The herd is tucked well off the road system in the heart of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Hunters either have to take rough horse-pack trails 10 to 20 miles through the forest or boat across Tustumena Lake to hike a slightly shorter but steeper trail.
''A lot of people are going to look at this as the golden opportunity, the only registration hunt on the road system. It's not that way,'' Spraker said. ''This is a difficult hunt. If you do not have horses or access to horses, you should not apply. You're gonna pay with blisters for this one.''
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