Climate Change Suspected factor in Arctic Caribou Decline

One of the biggest caribou herds in North America has taken a nosedive, and climate change is a likely culprit in the population decline, reports Alaska Public Media.

Alaska’s Western Arctic Caribou Herd population is lower than at any time in over four decades, with numbers put at 164,000, down from a high of nearly 500,000 in 2003, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

For a short-term response, the a local working group, which advises policy makers on wildlife management, agreed on recommendations for new cuts in hunting limits, which had already been reduced.

There should be more avoidance of cows, as adult female survival was shown to be on an especially bad trend, the group also concluded. Additionally, members of the working group urged better reporting from villages of their hunting experiences and successes.

But neither hunting nor predation by bears or wolves is implicated in the long-term decline. Instead, several signs point to climate change as having a big effect on the herd.

There is a continued pattern of later fall migration, as recorded by biologists. A possible factor is the change to vegetation on which caribou depend. As the climate warms, woody plants are growing farther north, displacing many of the tundra plants that caribou eat. New research that is underway has shown a transformation in part of the western Arctic herd’s range since 1985.

The changes are particularly drastic on the Seward Peninsula, in the more southern area of the herd’s range, according to preliminary results of the research, being led by Fairbanks scientist Matthew Macander, who has done similar research in other parts of Alaska.