Fortymile Caribou, all 43,000, Enter Chena River Valley

RUT SEASON: High numbers mean herd is growing, looking for range.


The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / October 1, 2003

 

FAIRBANKS -- The Fortymile caribou herd has moved into the Chena River Valley and taken up residence in the hills behind Chena Hot Springs in far larger numbers for that area than old-timers can recall.

As many as 9,000 caribou are congregating in the vicinity of Chena Hot Springs Road, said state wildlife biologist Craig Gardner. The bulk of the herd -- about 25,000 caribou -- is loitering at Far Mountain, about 10 miles east of Chena Hot Springs.

The Fortymile herd, the largest in the Interior at 43,000-plus animals, moved into the valley 60 miles east of Fairbanks over the weekend.

Steve and Annette Verbanac have seen small pockets of caribou two other times in their 26-year occupation of Angel Creek Lodge at Mile 50 Chena Hot Springs Road.

"It's the first time we've seen a herd this big," Steve Verbanac said. "I wished I had a movie camera to get some pictures."

The bulls were bringing up the rear of the herd, he said. He spotted several "nice" bulls and one that fell into the "exceptional" category.

But hunters won't get a shot at any of the animals. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the season in that area on Friday for fear hunters would exceed the harvest quota of 90 animals if word got out that the herd was near the road. The hunt was scheduled to close at midnight Tuesday.

The Fortymile herd has shown a wandering tendency in recent weeks. A month ago, the caribou appeared to be headed for the Taylor Highway. Then it suddenly traveled about 200 miles back toward the Steese Highway, where the animals showed up last week, prompting the state to close down the Steese Highway hunt. Those caribou continued to travel southwest into the Chena River Valley over the last few days.

"They are so mobile during the rut," Gardner said, referring to the mating season.

The presence of the herd in the Chena River Valley simply means the herd is growing and looking for new range, biologists said.

The Fortymile herd has nearly doubled in size from 22,000 animals in 1995 to 43,000 this year. It has been the focus of a recovery plan that included the sterilization and relocation of wolves to reduce predation as well as reduced harvest by hunters.

A poor calf crop this spring prompted the state to reduce this year's harvest quota by 300 animals. But the health and future of the herd appears to be good based on composition counts done last week, biologists said. The bull-to-cow ratio was high, and biologists saw lots of yearlings, both bulls and cows.

There's no telling how long the caribou will linger before continuing its fall migration.
"They did this last year, and two or three weeks later they were crossing the Canadian border," Gardner said, referring to the herd's sudden movements at this time of year.


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