After declining to 123,000 animals in 2001, a new survey by the Yukon government and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the Porcupine caribou herd to be between 202,000 and 235,000 animals, a record high population. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons)

Porcupine caribou herd reaches record numbers

Population definitely a high, future decline ‘inevitable’: biologist

The Porcupine caribou herd has reached record numbers, according to a new survey by the Yukon government and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The new population estimate puts the herd at between 202,000 and 235,000 animals with 95 per cent certainty. This is significantly higher than the herd’s previous peak population of 178,000 animals in 1989, said Alaska Fish and Game biologist Jason Caikoski.

Caribou go through natural cycles of growth and decline, Caikoski said, related to the balance of births versus deaths, calf mortality rate and recruitment from other caribou herds. At a certain point, increasing caribou populations tend to tip and then begin to decline, he said, although what causes these tipping points is poorly understood.

Boom times

The Porcupine caribou count has been going on since the 1970s — a very short study, in terms of biological time, Caikoski said. At that time, the herd numbered only about 100,000 animals, but steadily increased to its 1989 peak before steadily declining to 123,000 animals in 2001. The herd has been growing steadily since then at a rate of between three to four per cent annually, with an average yearly growth rate of 3.7 per cent.

This growth rate is actually relatively low, in terms of what biologists see in other barren grounds caribou herds, Caikoski said, and makes the Porcupine caribou somewhat unique amongst their species, which tend to cycle up and down much more rapidly.

“To put it in perspective … growing at three to four per cent a year is very modest. We see growth rates of up to 10 per cent in other herds,” he said. “They (the Porcupine) are not as eruptive and don’t crash as hard as other herds.”

So how big can the herd really get? Nobody is really sure, Caikoski said. There are, certainly, larger herds — the Western Arctic herd in Alaska grew to nearly 500,000 animals at its most recent peak before crashing, he said, but that doesn’t mean the Porcupine can get that large. Factors that limit growth, such as habitat type, predation and weather all affect caribou populations.

“The top end is the big unknown,” he said. “Presently, the animals are really robust, with healthy calves and good body condition … but these things can tip over pretty fast.”

“We don’t really know the reason why survival is really good right now … (but) we do know survival is higher than average.”

“We’re at a high point right now, for sure,” said Yukon biologist Mike Suitor. “The herd is healthy, very fat. Reproductively, they seem to be doing very well.”

However, Suitor said, a decline is inevitable “in the not-too-distant future.”

The inevitable bust

That could be a problem, Suitor said. On Dec. 22, the United States signed a bill into law which officially opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration and drilling. The Porcupine caribou traditionally calve in 1002 Area, a piece of coastal tundra within ANWR, and conservationists, biologists and Gwich’in people on both sides of the border are concerned about the impact that will have on the herd’s long-term health.

A recent paper by biologist Brad Griffith of the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit found that drilling in the Porcupine caribou calving ground would likely reduce calf survival rates in the herd by 8.2 per cent.

The herd can sustain a 4.6 per cent reduction in calf survivability before it begins to negatively impact the population, Griffith said.

“I don’t think anyone can say for sure what might happen (if development occurs) in the calving grounds,” Suitor said. “But we know that caribou need to calve where caribou need to calve… the need to go where the proper conditions for them are.”

When the Porcupine caribou decline, their population shrinks on average 3.3 percent per year, Suitor said. If the herd is already in decline when development begins and are disturbed by this human activity, “one could assume” that the population decline would be accelerated, although the precise impact would be impossible to predict.

Caikoski said sometimes the caribou do not use 1002 Area at all, calving by choice closer to or on the Yukon border, and no one is really sure why. Many things can impact caribou survival rates besides the calving grounds, he said, including weather conditions and changes in the landscape.

“I think the jury is still out on what kind of effect a disturbance would have on that herd,” Caikoski said.

A recent survey of 13 North American barren ground caribou populations found that all the herds were either in decline or had stabilized at lower-than-average numbers — with the notable exception of the Porcupine herd, who are still growing, said Suitor.

“Some of those herds have declined by 90 per cent,” he said. “The Baffin herd is probably the worst-case example.”

Given this decline, the barren grounds caribou as a whole may be classified as a threatened species in the next few years, Suitor said.

Gwich’in concern

Opening ANWR to oil exploration has been the subject of much debate. The herd, which migrates thousands of kilometres each year between the Northwest Territories, Yukon and northeastern Alaska, is important to the Gwich’in, who traditionally rely on the animals for food and clothing. The Gwich’in consider their relationship to the caribou sacred, and refer to the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou as ‘the sacred place where life begins.’

Gwich’in leaders have expressed extreme sadness and disappointment at the bill’s passing.

The Gwich’in have been campaigning to protect the caribou calving grounds for more than 30 years, said Pauline Frost, the Yukon’s environment minister and a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation member.

Frost said that “like everyone” she was happy to see the Porcupine herd growing, despite trends in other caribou populations. However, the First Nation and Canadian government need to “be at the table” with the Americans to ensure the herd’s proper management now that the bill has passed and ANWR is open.

“We know (the Americans) are advancing development for economic reasons in ANWR…. We want to get to the table with them and have a conversation about sustainable resource extraction in the region,” she said.

Canada and the U.S. have a 1987 treaty which recognizes the need to protect the Porcupine caribou and their habitat, Frost said. The government and First Nations will want “some kind of commitment” from the Americans that extraction will be done without compromising the herd and that development is properly managed with that treaty commitment in mind.

“We have a lot of experience in land and resource management…. Really we want to look at best practices and what we can do here to protect this iconic herd,” she said.

Contact Lori Fox at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

During our recent conversation, John Nicholson showed me snapshots of his time working on the Yukon riverboats 70 years ago. (Michael Gates)
History Hunter: Yukon man relives the riverboat days after seven decades

John Nicholson took summer work on Yukon steamers in the 1950s

A city map shows the property at 107 Range Road. The zoning is now in place for developers to proceed with plans for a Dairy Queen drive-thru. If plans proceed on schedule the new restaurant is anticipated to open in October. (Cyrstal Schick/Yukon News)
October opening eyed for Dairy Queen

Will depend on everything going according to plan

NDP candidate Annie Blake, left, and Liberal incumbent Pauline Frost. (Submitted photos)
Official recount confirms tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin riding

Both candidates Pauline Frost and Annie Blake are still standing with 78 votes each

Artist’s rendering of a Dairy Queen drive-thru. At its April 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved a zoning change to allow a drive-thru at 107 Range Road. Developers sought the change to build a Dairy Queen there. (Submitted)
Drive-thru approved by Whitehorse city council at 107 Range Road

Rezoning could pave the way for a Dairy Queen


Wyatt’s World for April 14, 2021.… Continue reading

Joel Krahn/ Hikers traverse the Chilkoot Trail in September 2015. Alaska side.
The Canadian side of the Chilkoot Trail will open for summer

The Canadian side of the Chilkoot Trail will open for summer Parks… Continue reading

École Whitehorse Elementary Grade 7 students Yumi Traynor and Oscar Wolosewich participated in the Civix Student Vote in Whitehorse on April 12. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Yukon Student Vote chooses Yukon Party government; NDP take popular vote

The initiative is organized by national non-profit CIVIX

Yvonne Clarke is the newly elected Yukon Party MLA for Porter Creek Centre. (Submitted/Yukon Party)
Yvonne Clarke elected as first Filipina MLA in the Yukon Legislative Assembly

Clarke beat incumbent Liberal Paolo Gallina in Porter Creek Centre

Emily Tredger at NDP election night headquarters after winning the Whitehorse Centre riding. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Emily Tredger takes Whitehorse Centre for NDP

MLA-elect ready to get to work in new role

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Two new cases of COVID-19 variant identified in territory

“If variants were to get out of control in the Yukon, the impact could be serious.”

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

Most Read