Caribou count relies on antique camera and luck

After nine years of speculation, biologists may finally get a Porcupine caribou head count. "We're at the very beginning stages," said Alaskan biologist Cathy Harms on Tuesday.

After nine years of speculation, biologists may finally get a Porcupine caribou head count.

“We’re at the very beginning stages,” said Alaskan biologist Cathy Harms on Tuesday.

“That means the airplane flew and the camera worked.”

But the pictures have not been developed yet.

It’s summer and Harms’ field staff are “in the field,” she said.

And the count’s not usually done until “well after the first of the year.

“I know you have an important meeting this fall,” she added. “But I don’t know if we can speed up the process.”

The “important meeting” is the finalization of a management plan to save the dwindling Porcupine caribou herd.

At the end of June, the Yukon government, five First Nations, the NWT and the government of Canada signed the plan, but gave themselves until the end of December to work out the details.

And having a solid number on the caribou population would help.

The last successful count was in 2001, when the herd numbered 123,000.

Since then, the weather hasn’t co-operated.

The count is usually done in May or June when it warms up and the bugs come out, forcing the caribou together on the coast where there’s good visibility.

Biologists fly over the herd and take shots with an antiquarian camera that sits in the belly of their plane.

The camera is temperamental, said Harms.

But when it works, it snaps large-format photos, 12 inches square. The pictures are laid out in a grid, with careful calculations to make sure none overlap, so no caribou are counted twice.

When the plane flew in 2004, forest fire smoke cut visibility.

And in the years that followed, the weather didn’t warm up until the caribou had already left the coast for the mountains.

In 2007, Alaskan wildlife officials did attempt a flyover in the mountains, and snapped some good pictures of the herd.

But only the animals in the sun were visible – those in the shadows couldn’t be counted.

The Porcupine herd is suspected to number between 90,000 and 100,000.

But that estimate is based strictly on guesswork.

And the Northwest Territories’ Bathurst caribou herd offers a disturbing parallel.

In 2003, the last time an aerial count was possible, the Bathurst herd numbered 186,000.

Six years later, when the next successful count was taken, the herd had dropped to 32,000.

For the Porcupine caribou, last year was the worst on record, with calving numbers the lowest ever recorded by Yukon biologists.

This spring, to protect the herd, the territorial government imposed a moratorium on hunting cows.

For every cow harvested, 23 caribou are lost each decade – calculating the cow’s offspring and her calves’ offspring, according to Environment Yukon’s website.

Despite these statistics, the hunting ban didn’t fly with First Nations in the Northwest Territories, who argued it undermined treaty rights.

In an attempt to appease all parties, the recent management plan allows native hunters to continue hunting cows until the herd’s population drops below 80,000.

But it’s quite possible the Porcupine herd has already dropped below 80,000.

“We understand the count is a high priority,” said Harms.

“But I don’t know if we can change our schedule.”

Harms is not even sure they will get a count.

“We’ve had failures before,” she said.

“It’s literally the luck of the draw.

“First we have to see if the photos turn out.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com