Caribou Herds of Northwest Alaska, 1850-2000 by Ernest S. Burch Jr.

By Ernest S. Burch Jr.

Reconstructs the distribution of caribou herds in northwest Alaska utilizing facts from study performed through the years in addition to resources that predate Western technology by means of multiple hundred years. the writer explores human and normal components that contributed to the loss of life and restoration of caribou and reindeer populations in this time.

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One might expect that the early summer aggregations would have been a major focus of human hunters, since so many animals are involved, and since, when being harassed by insects, they are almost oblivious to predators. However, there are several reasons why this was not so. First, there is no way to know in advance precisely where the aggregations will form, or just which direction the animals will head when they do. It is difficult to learn the precise location of even a huge early summer aggregation without aircraft or blind luck.

These include the expansion of the boreal forest into the tundra zone, particularly on the Seward Peninsula; a longer growing season featuring earlier greenup; changes in leaf chemistry reducing summer forage quality for caribou; and an increase in the frequency of forest and tundra fires (Chapin et al. 1992; Gunn et al. 2009; Mason and Gerlach 1995:113; Post et al. 2009). 16 Beyond the tree line, there was a decrease in the use of shrubs for fuel and for the construction of boat and tent frames and various other equipment; this resulted in lush shrub growth along many interior watercourses.

Adult bulls weigh 220–290 lbs. (99–132 kg) and are roughly 48 inches (22 cm) tall. As with caribou, there is considerable seasonal variation in the weight of individual animals (Christie and Finstad 2009:356). Reindeer pelage is more variable than that of caribou due to many generations of selective breeding. The “legs and face are dark, while the body shades from brownish grey to creamy white on the shoulders, neck and belly” (Christie and Finstad 2009:356). Some individuals have mottled brown and white coats, and others are nearly pure white.

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