Alaska caribou hunt won't last long as officials fear overkill

ANCHORAGE — Blink and the season's over.

That's what some caribou hunters along the Steese Highway may think after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Friday that it would close the Fortymile caribou herd hunt after a single day.

In an effort to avoid an over harvest, the season will close 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

"Many caribou and many caribou hunters are gathered along the Steese Highway, and we expect a significant harvest on Sunday," Jeff Gross, the state area biologist based in Tok, said in press release.

Federally qualified subsistence hunters will be allowed to continue to hunt on federal land in the area.

In two of the past three seasons, the Fortymile hunt has closed early because caribou were congregated near the highway, easily accessible to hunters.

Last year, for instance, hunters exceeded the quota by 36 percent in just three days, killing 870 animals. As a result, the winter Fortymile hunt was cancelled.

In an effort to tamp down the early enthusiasm, biologists moved back this year's opening nearly three weeks, hoping the animals would disperse more, and restricted hunters to bulls.

Also, the quota for this season was cut about 6 percent to 795 caribou shared between the fall (600) and winter (195) seasons. There are three zones for hunt, each with its own quota.

Hunting will be closed when season quotas are met.

State game managers had to "borrow" caribou from this year's harvest to make up for exceeding the quota in the past year.

Biologists can reopen the hunt if the quota is not met when the hunt closes Sunday.

"We don't know yet if this closure is final or temporary," Gross said.

The 45,000-animal Fortymile herd is an Alaska caribou herd that's growing, up from 39,000 a year ago, according the state biologists. Part of the reason may be that wolves have been shot from helicopters in an effort to boost the herd size to 50,000-100,000 animals.

State game managers aren't sure what kind of impact repair work on the flooded Taylor Highway will have on the hunt.

The Department of Transportation has been trying to fix the 160-mile road from near Tok to Eagle for the past month after heavy rains washed out sections of the road several times in July and August.

As of Wednesday, the road was open only to Mile 105 and travelers must follow DOT convoys from Mile 67 at Chicken to Mile 95 at Boundary, the turn-off to the Top of the World Highway. Convoys leave from Chicken at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and return convoys leave Boundary at 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.