Isaac Bettingfield, Game Warden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the new language includes, “you may not pursue with a motorized vehicle an ungulate that is at or near a full gallop.”
“Basically, it boils down to, anytime the caribou are running, you can’t be following them with a motorized vehicle,” said Bettingfield.
The old regulation language was vaguer. It said that you couldn’t pursue an animal that is fleeing with a motorized vehicle. It also said that hunters couldn’t drive, herd, or molest game with any motorized vehicle.
But what exactly did those terms mean?
In recent years, game wardens have cited hunters on snow machines for chasing caribou as the animals were running away. But some hunters maintained they were just out hunting.
Game managers like Bettingfield hope the new language will clarify the gray area.
“What it does allow is if you have a herd that is moving away from you just at a slow walk, and occasionally that’ll happen with a herd that is not being pushed real hard, then you can approach them on a motorized vehicle. Where before, if they were leaving, whether they were walking or running, you couldn’t follow them with a motorized vehicle.”
I asked him about this scenario: “You’re out caribou hunting, the caribou run away, they run over or around the next hill. You no longer see them, but they were running the last time you saw them. Would you be able to pursue them if they’re not in your vision?”
Bettingfield said that does happen, but it’s not legal to run right after them.
“One thing that we do see, which is illegal, is folks following right after them, on their snow machine, in a straight line as quick as they can, and they try to get up close enough, jump off their snow machine, and shoot them,” Bettingfield said. “That’s what we’re trying to get away from. Another thing that you do see out there, which is legal, is if those caribou take off running, you sit and figure out what the caribou are doing and then rather than continuing to push them, which is what you don’t want to do, you can use the terrain to stay out of sight, go around a hill, go into some of the little rivers, gullies that are out there, stay low and try to figure out where they’re going to be next.”
Basically, hunt like an elder. Go out, find the caribou, sit at a distance with binoculars, and watch what they’re doing.
“These elders, you’ll see them go up-wind of the caribou and just sit,” said Bettingfield. “And a lot of times these caribou will just start moving back and forth and next thing you know, more often than not, these elders are sitting in the middle of the caribou herd and they get the animals they need without chasing them at all.”
Spencer Rearden, Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bethel, said it’s “exercising patience and looking for a scenario that results in less disturbance to those animals.”
“This is all geared towards reducing the disturbance on caribou,” Rearden said.
The population of concern is the Mulchatna Caribou Herd which has seen a dramatic decline in the past 15 years. It peaked at 200,000 animals in 1996 then plummeted to 30,000 in 2008.
Ten years ago, subsistence hunters could take five caribou a season–male or female–but hunting laws have become more restrictive to help protect the herd.
The reasons for the decline are unknown but probably stem from a variety of factors, not all of which can be measured.
“There could be other hunter-caused mortality that we can’t measure,” Rearden said. “Animals that have become disturbed so much throughout the winter that they may be predisposed to predation or they just run out of energy and have a hard time making it through the winter. And since we do have a long season under the state regs. until the middle of March, that’s a long time that hunters have access to these animals.”
Managers say what they can focus on is helping caribou during the winter months when their fat stores are dwindling and they’re being targeted by hunters.
Caribou hunting remains open until March 15 on state lands and until the end of February on federal lands.