WHITEHORSE – The population of the Porcupine caribou in Yukon and Alaska is growing compared with caribou herds elsewhere in the world, a Yukon government biologist says.
Mike Suitor said that of the 13 barren ground caribou herds across Canada’s North, the Porcupine is the only population of caribou that has increased, likely due to favourable environmental conditions.
The Yukon government announced Wednesday that an estimated 218,000 Porcupine caribou had been counted in Yukon, up from 198,000 since the last count in 2013.
That’s up from 169,000 animals in 2010, resulting in an annual growth rate of 3.7 per cent over the last seven years, the government said in a release.
“Globally, most of the caribou herd are in decline or have stabilized,” Suitor said. “The fact that the Porcupine herd is healthy is big news in Canada and also in the United States, especially Canada, because a lot of people depend on them culturally and as a food source.”
The animals have been historically important for the Gwich’in First Nation of Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and the Inuvialuit, who live in the Northwest Territories but also use their traditional lands in the Yukon North Slope for harvesting, he said.
Warm, wet conditions in recent summers have made for lush vegetation while in the Northwest Territories, for example, caribou have been contending with drought conditions in recent years, Suitor said.
Low harvest years like last year, when the caribou failed to reach the Dempster Highway in Yukon and were not available to the village of Old Crow, probably contributed to the herd’s growth, he said.
High-resolution aerial photography was used to conduct the latest census last July along the Beaufort Sea coastal plain in the Yukon and Alaska, before the animals were counted through a co-ordinated effort by both jurisdictions.
“Most of the caribou were located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, with 13,136 caribou photographed in Yukon,” the territorial government said in a release.
An annual growth rate of 3.7 per cent is similar to the growth seen in the 1970s and ’80s, when the herd was going through its last naturally occurring growth cycle, it says.
The 2001 census estimated the herd at 123,000, or almost 100,000 fewer caribou than last summer.
“This year’s successful and strong count demonstrates our excellent collaborative management with state, territorial, First Nations and federal partners,” Environment Minister Pauline Frost said in a statement.
“This is a level of partnership we should all be proud of, as it exemplifies what can be achieved over time for a larger cause than what we are bound to within our jurisdictions,” Frost said.
“The challenge before us will be how we continue to work with all partners for the continued health and conservation of this iconic herd, especially as we have witnessed significant fluctuations in the population of this herd from time to time.” (The Canadian Press, Whitehorse Star)