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Porcupine caribou return to Old Crow in time for Caribou Days

A poor caribou harvest for Old Crow last fall has made the spring hunt all the sweeter. The porcupine caribou herd didn't migrate through the community last fall like they usually do, but bulls were spotted near the community last week, on their spring migration.

Caribou migration keeps experts guessing every year, as animals wander between Yukon and Alaska

These porcupine caribou were photographed as they roamed back into Ivvavik National Park along the Firth River. (Mike Suitor)

A roaming herd of caribou have returned to Old Crow, Yukon, after failing to visit the community last fall. Bulls on their spring migration were spotted near the community last week and many families were able to fill their freezers once again.  

"The whole community really appreciates that we can have food to share," says Lorraine Netro, who took part in the community's annual Caribou Days celebration over the long weekend.

Netro is one of about 300 people who live in Old Crow, a remote fly-in community in northern Yukon that depends heavily on caribou as a main food source. 

"We pay a really high market price for food in our community and when we don't get our supply of traditional foods, it's a real concern," she says.

Scarcity breeds appreciation

"When we have a worst case scenario, it really makes us appreciate when the caribou come back," said Joe Tetlichi, chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board. (Karen McColl/CBC)
Joe Tetlichi, chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, says a bad harvesting season helps to remind people to respect the herd.

"When we have a worst case scenario, it really makes us appreciate when the caribou come back," he says. 

Tetlichi recently gave a community presentation on the status of the Porcupine Caribou herd on behalf of the board which is made up of government and First Nations' representatives. 

Tetlichi says part of respecting the caribou means reporting how many animals each hunter takes.  

He says the purpose of this is to determine the needs of the community in order to set up a system with other communities that hunt porcupine caribou — like Fort McPherson and Aklavik — so that when times are bad, they can share. 

He warned that although the herd is healthy at the moment, that could change. 

Herd is 'thriving' with about 200,000 animals

About 200,000 caribou make up the porcupine herd. The animals cover a range of land in Alaska and Yukon which is about the size of the United Kingdom. (Google)
The Porcupine Caribou herd has a range in Alaska and Yukon about the size of the United Kingdom. With herd numbers of about 200,000 in the last count, it's thriving compared to other caribou herds, says Tetlichi.

The herd often overwinters in Yukon near the Dempster Highway or Peel watershed and linger near Old Crow, but even caribou experts can't predict exactly where the animals will go from year to year.  

Mike Suitor, the North Yukon's regional biologist for Environment Yukon, says Porcupine Caribou have wintering areas across Yukon and Alaska but says their movement this year was exceptional.

"The difference this year is that all of the caribou practically wintered in Alaska," he says.

Although Suitor says he can't say for sure why this is, he notes there was an unusually high snowfall in Yukon's Ogilvie mountains this winter, while the area near Venetie and Arctic Village in Alaska where the caribou wintered had little snow. 

Caribou in 'very good shape'

David Frost is a natural resources manager with Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. He says migration routes often change and caribou always keep researchers guessing. (Karen McColl/CBC)
After the poor fall hunting season, many in the community wondered if the caribou would migrate through the community at all this spring. 

David Frost, natural resources manager with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, says the cows went straight north from Alaska to their calving grounds but the bulls separated off like they normally do, into small groups.   

"Luckily enough they came to town right in time for Caribou Days." 

Local hunters say the spring bulls are fatter than usual. 

"They come back this way, very fat, very good shape," says Dennis Frost, who got two caribou last week. 

"That tells me the food in Alaska is plentiful and the snow is less deep than here. We had a year where it was so much snow. It would have been hard for the caribou and I think the caribou knew this." 

As for what the community should expect next fall, it's anyone's bet. David Frost says migration routes can change and caribou always keep researchers guessing. 

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