Hunters with Tier II subsistence permits who didn't bag a Nelchina caribou this fall won't get a second shot to do so this winter.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Monday announced there will not be a state winter hunt for Nelchina caribou because hunters killed close to 1,000 caribou this fall and the herd's population is still slightly below the management objective.
"We're just being a little conservative," is how state wildlife biologist Bob Tobey put it when contacted by phone at the Fish and Game office in Glennallen.
State game managers had set a harvest quota of 1,000 bulls and 500 cows prior to the fall season, and the current reported harvest for state and federal hunters is 690 bulls and 260 cows. But additional harvest during the federal subsistence winter hunt and animals not yet reported that were taken in the Tier II hunt are expected to raise the total harvest to the quota, Tobey said.
"Federal subsistence hunters the last two years have taken around 600 caribou (during the winter hunt), and you have to assume they're going to have a similar harvest," he said.
The federal subsistence season, which is open to residents who live in the Nelchina basin, reopens Sunday, the same date the state's Tier II winter season was slated to open. The fall hunt ran from Aug. 10 to Sept. 20.
In addition to the high harvest numbers, the herd's calf-to-cow ratio was lower than biologists like to see, Tobey said. Biologists conducted a herd composition count this fall and found about 35 calves per 100 cows.
"We were expecting 40," Tobey said of the calf count.
That statistic, coupled with the fact the herd is still slightly below the 35,000 minimum population objective, persuaded biologists to cancel the state's winter hunt.
"When it came in at 35 calves, that was the clincher," Tobey said.
While that number is not especially low in terms of herd health, "it's just not what we were expecting," he said.
Judging from female calf weights taken by biologists this fall, the herd appears to be in good health, Tobey said. Calf weights are a good indication of a herd's overall condition.
"The calves we weighed this year were some of heaviest we've weighed," Tobey said.
The Nelchina herd has averaged annual harvests of more than 2,000 caribou the last three years, he said. That's a herd harvest rate of almost 6 percent.
The Fortymile Caribou Herd, the Interior's largest caribou herd at approximately 45,000 animals, provides an annual harvest of about 850 caribou for a harvest rate of 2 percent.
"We've taken 7,000-plus caribou in the last three years," Tobey said.
This year's harvest quota was based on statistical models because biologists didn't do a count last year, Tobey said. Biologists did a count this summer and have not yet finished counting caribou in aerial photos, he said.
Neither did biologists know how much of an effect new restrictions prohibiting the use of planes or large off-road vehicles would have on the hunt.
"We weren't sure how people were going to do with this 'no fly-in' thing and 'no big-rig' thing," he said. "People did good."
Contact staff Writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.