Caribou herd keeps Selawik hunters guessing
It's not unusual for caribou to arrive late in Selawik. It's happened plenty of times in years past. But there is something a little different about this year's tardy arrival of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.
Unlike previous years, where a lead pack of caribou would make an appearance in the Kobuk Valley before the main herd, this year there has been none.
"They're more than a little late," said Fish and Game caribou biologist Jim Dau from Kotzebue.
Since 2000, the herd, Alaska's largest, is getting less and less predictable coming off its summer grounds on the North Slope, Dau said.
And while, in terms of calendar time, he's not seen "the vanguard of the migration" get to the Kobuk this late, weather-wise it might not be as far off schedule as some think.
"In other years, when they were late you would still see some coming through in early September and this year there's just been nothing," Dau said. "That's what's unusual about this year."
The population of the herd is estimated at around 325,000 caribou as of this summer, down from 348,000 at last count in 2009. It reached its peak in 2003 at nearly 490,000.
With winter rapidly approaching, hunters in Selawik voiced concern last week with the absence of what is usually their main source of meat.
"It's scary because if we don't have caribou or moose meat, then we're going to have to rely on chicken or beef from the stores and the majority of the village can't afford it," said Norma Ballot, who was born and raised in Selawik.
Ballot is the bilingual Inupiat teacher at the Davis-Ramoth School and said she talks to her students about what will happen if the caribou come in too late to hunt.
"In the classroom, I've been asking my students if the caribou don't come and you happen to not get any moose meat, what kind of meat are we going to eat?"
Most of the students answer "fish."
"But to get fish, you need a boat and a net and you need to know how to do it," Ballot said.
"I always say that the animals know the future and so maybe they know that we're going to have a really cold winter which is what some people are saying in town. If we're going to have a cold winter, caribou usually come late because they're trying to fatten themselves up."
In 2009, big numbers of caribou didn't cross the Kobuk until the third week of October, Dau noted.
In late August, Dau visited the herd on the slope and said he witnessed the caribou showing signs that the bugs were bothering them and "as long as the bugs are bothering them, there's no reason for them to head south," he said.
But just a few weeks later, when Dau headed to the North Slope again, the bugs were gone, but the herd still showed no signs of heading south.
"There was no indication of any directed migratory movement, they were just kind of milling around and I don't have an explanation for that."
Exactly what motivates the caribou to start moving is not known, he said. But it is clear that they key off the weather.
"The ultimate cue that they're going off of is temperature and weather like snow, but there are other factors that we don't understand."
In general, warm days in late summer and early fall tend to keep animals where they are.
"This year we've had an extremely warm September," said Lee Anne Ayres, manager of the National Selawik Wildlife Refuge. "And it's where they happen to be when the weather changes" that decides which villages will see the bulk of the animals.
Last year, about 60,000 caribou split from the main herd and wound up around Kotzebue, far more west than in previous years.
The herd typically settles on the Seward Peninsula and around the Nulato hills for the winter.