Population dynamics of caribou herds in southwestern Alaska
AbstractThe five naturally occurring and one transplanted caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) herd in southwestern Alaska composed about 20% of Alaska's caribou population in 2001. All five of the naturally occurring herds fluctuated considerably in size between the late 1800s and 2001 and for some herds the data provide an indication of long-term periodic (40-50 year) fluctuations. At the present time, the Unimak (UCH) and Southern Alaska Peninsula (SAP) are recovering from population declines, the Northern Alaska Peninsula Herd (NAP) appears to be nearing the end of a protracted decline, and the Mulchatna Herd (MCH) appears to now be declining after 20 years of rapid growth. The remaining naturally occurring herd (Kilbuck) has virtually disappeared. Nutrition had a significant effect on the size of 4-month-old and 10-month-old calves in the NAP and the Nushagak Peninsula Herd (NPCH) and probably also on population growth in at least 4 (SAP, NAP, NPCH, and MCH) of the six caribou herds in southwestern Alaska. Predation does not appear to be sufficient to keep caribou herds in southwestern Alaska from expanding, probably because rabies is endemic in red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and is periodically transferred to wolves (Canis lupus) and other canids. However, we found evidence that pneumonia and hoof rot may result in significant mortality of caribou in southwestern Alaska, whereas there is no evidence that disease is important in the dynamics of Interior herds. Cooperative conservation programs, such as the Kilbuck Caribou Management Plan, can be successful in restraining traditional harvest and promoting growth in caribou herds. In southwestern Alaska we also found evidence that small caribou herds can be swamped and assimilated by large herds, and fidelity to traditional calving areas can be lost.
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