Fortymile Caribou Hunt Postponed


Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / November 29, 2003


The winter hunt for the Fortymile Caribou Herd off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks scheduled to open on Monday has been postponed because state wildlife biologists are worried there may be too many caribou close to the road, making it possible for hunters to kill too many.

Biologists haven't been able to track the herd for the past 10 days because bad weather has prevented flying. When biologists flew over the herd a week and a half ago, they found about one-quarter of the 45,000-animal herd in the vicinity of Birch Creek, only 10 to 15 miles from the highway. They don't know how close to the road those caribou may be now.
"Up to 10,000 caribou could be on or close to the Steese (Highway), but we can't get there to find out," said biologist Jeff Gross in Tok, who manages the hunt. "We have to take the conservative approach until we can get a better handle on the situation to make sure we don't over-harvest the herd.
"If there are 10,000 animals standing on the road, you can't just open it up for people to go up there whole hog."

The quota for the winter hunt is 302 animals, which is split almost evenly between the Steese Highway hunt in Unit 25C and the Taylor Highway hunt in Unit 20E, as well as Units 20B and 20D. The season is still open in those units.

Hunters who have registered for the hunt should call the Fortymile hot line at (907) 267-2310 before heading into the field to determine where the season is open.

Biologists emphasize that the Steese Highway closure is only temporary and hunters will get a shot at caribou in Unit 25C. As soon as weather allows, biologists will track the herd's location and movement to determine when the season can be opened.

"We are not taking away hunters' opportunity to hunt the herd, only delaying it," Gross said.

If caribou are still 10 or 15 miles off the highway, biologists will issue an emergency order to open the season, he said. If the animals are close to the road, biologists will try to come up with some way to accommodate hunters in a timely fashion.

"When we get up in the air we're going to formulate a new strategy where there's not going to be an over-harvest but there's still going to be opportunity," Gross said.

A similar situation developed two years ago when about 12,000 caribou descended on the Steese Highway near Eagle Summit right before the winter hunt was scheduled to open. Fish and Game issued emergency restrictions that established a no-hunting corridor one mile on each side of the road but hunters still enjoyed a field day. The season was open only two days before hunters reached the winter quota, leaving hunters along the Taylor Highway with only a few caribou.

It was after that season that Fish and Game instituted a split quota for the winter, with about half going to the Steese Highway and half going to the Taylor, ensuring that there are caribou for both hunts.

The Fortymile is the Interior's largest caribou herd and has been the focus of a rebuilding management plan over the past seven years that has included limiting hunting, sterilizing and relocating wolves to cut down on predation and private trapping of wolves. As a result, the herd has doubled in size since 1995 from 22,000 to an estimated 45,000.

The harvest plan for the herd requires Fish and Game to close hunting seasons when large numbers of animals are near highways to minimize the chance of excessive roadside harvest.
Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com .


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