Athabaskan council sets its sights on caribou

Transboundary caribou herds will be the focus of a new project the Arctic Athabaskan Council is taking on with the help of a $100,000 grant. The council, which represents Canadian and Alaskan Athabaskans, tries to zero in on projects that bring its people together from both sides of the border.

Transboundary caribou herds will be the focus of a new project the Arctic Athabaskan Council is taking on with the help of a $100,000 grant.

The council, which represents Canadian and Alaskan Athabaskans, tries to zero in on projects that bring its people together from both sides of the border.

That’s why it decided to study caribou, the animal that has been an Athabaskan lifeblood for generations.

“With climate change coming, we have all these things we need to start looking at,” said Chief Gary Harrison from his office in Chickaloon, Alaska.

“We can’t just passively sit by and just let things happen. We’ve got to be proactive in saving our habitat.”

Harrison is the Alaskan chair of the council and one of the chiefs of the Ahtna people of south-central Alaska.

He remembers when the caribou herds used to be double, triple, even quadruple the size they are now.

“We depend upon them for food,” he said. “Caribou is one of the basic food groups for us and if we can make sure that we’re able to harvest caribou, that’s food security and food sovereignty.”

The council recently received the $100,000 grant for the two-year project from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The commission is a collection of environmentally-minded groups from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Harrison sees the grant as seed money to develop a future tagging project for a number of border herds, including the Nelchina, Fortymile and Chisana.

The council wants to monitor these herds and see how they interact with the land and each other, said Harrison. The goal is to ensure caribou habitat remains healthy.

The Nelchina herd rarely crosses into Canada but it overlaps with the Chisana herd, which straddles the border. It also overlaps with the Fortymile herd, which winters with the Nelchina along the Taylor Highway.

Biologists say the overlap doesn’t cause problems – the herds simply co-exist for a few months and then go their separate ways.

The Chisana, the smallest of the three, is considered stable at about 700 to 750 animals, said Yukon caribou biologist Troy Hegel.

But both the Nelchina and the Fortymile herds have known much larger populations and long migrations.

The Fortymile was once considered one of the largest caribou herds in the world.

Up until the 1920s, it had an estimated 500,000 animals. The herd migrated from Fairbanks, Alaska, all the way to Carcross in the southern Yukon. North of Dawson City it overlapped with the Porcupine herd.

The Fortymile herd may have been even larger before the gold rush. But in the 1930s, it plummeted to 10,000 to 20,000 animals, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s caribou management report.

By the mid-60s it had recovered to about 50,000, but then dropped to an all-time low of between 5,500 to 8,500.

Today it uses less than a quarter of its 1920s range, but has rebounded in size to about 40,000.

The Nelchina herd has a similar history, said Alaskan biologist Becky Schwanke.

“People still argue about the last peak of this herd (Nelchina) and just how high it was – anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 animals, during the peak, before it crashed back in the late ‘60s,” she said.

It took 20 years to recover and now sits at about 35,000 to 40,000.

“Caribou are one wildlife species that are quite predictable in their patterns,” Schwanke said. “Typically, caribou herds peak and then they crash and it’s almost entirely related to an over-concentration of animals on the calving grounds.

“They’re there in too high a density and they do damage to the plants. And so there becomes a point where the nutritional level just drops off. Caribou herds have a bad habit of crashing – hard – and taking a long time to rebound.”

Identifying that point is the hard part, said Schwanke.

Caribou management tends to be a tense issue on both sides of the border.

A management plan for the Chisana herd is expected to be signed by this harvest season, said Hegel.

The Fortymile herd underwent a management recovery plan.

The Nelchina has been under Alaskan management plans ever since a widespread harvest was encouraged in 1996-97 to help it recover, said Schwanke.

The Nelchina has also benefited from an aerial wolf-cull program conducted to bolster the moose population since 2001, she said. But now it may be facing even bigger problems.

If its habitat isn’t affected by climate change, a looming hydro-electric project has the potential to severely affect the caribou’s survival, Schwanke said.

The Susitna-Watana Dam Project was big news in the mid-‘80s but it was never built. Now it’s back on the table.

“A lot of money has been allocated to studying the potential affects,” Schwanke said.

“The proposed lake above the dam sits directly north of the Nelchina caribou herd’s calving grounds and the caribou cross the area twice a year.”

Harrison said in addition to studying the caribou, the council will gather and record traditional knowledge about the land and animals in the area.

Most of its caribou knowledge is rooted in traditional place names, and in languages that are dying with the elders.

In July, the council plans to meet experts who have studied the Porcupine caribou herd.

They will share practices, techniques and information as well as discuss work the council has already done on resiliency, biodiversity and climate change.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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