Aerial survey and telemetry data analysis of a peripheral caribou calving area in northwestern Alaska
With industrial development expanding in the Arctic, there is increasing interest in quantifying the impacts of development projects on barren ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti). The primary data source to assess caribou distribution and predict impacts in remote areas of Alaska has shifted in recent decades from aerial survey data to telemetry data, but these techniques have different strengths and weaknesses. The ranges of two caribou herds, the Western Arctic Herd and the Teshekpuk Herd, overlap in northwest Alaska between Wainwright and Atqasuk, Alaska. Based on long-term telemetry data sets, this region was thought to be outside of the core calving ranges of both herds. Calving has long been reported to occur in this general area, but early reports assumed caribou were from the Western Arctic Herd and only one systematic aerial survey of caribou density and distribution during calving has been conducted in this area in recent decades. Following interest in industrial development in this area, we conducted aerial strip-transect surveys during early to mid-June 2013–2015 to directly assess the density and distribution of caribou in the area and we used existing telemetry data to compare our results to the seasonal distribution of both herds. Total caribou densities varied between 0.36 and 1.06 caribou/km² among years, and calf densities varied 0.04 and 0.25 calves/km² among years. Contrary to assumptions by early researchers in the area, telemetry data indicated that caribou in this area during early to mid-June were from the Teshekpuk Herd. The use of telemetry data alone underestimated the importance of this area for calving, but the combination of aerial surveys and telemetry data provided complementary information on caribou use of this area showing the importance of collecting the appropriate types of data for assessing potential impacts of development on caribou.
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