Emerging Issue Summary
SPECIES OF INTEREST – CARIBOU

Highlights:

  • Many of the concerns raised for this issue dealt with perceived differences in the management of the four herds that calve on the North Slope. While there are valid scientific issues of consistency for comparing data, these are primarily management concerns and could be addressed by initiating and/or participating in collaborative management planning processes for the four North Slope herds, to the extent that this is not already occurring.
  • A meeting or mini-conference should be supported to identify and prioritize data needs, and to identify data currently being collected. The meeting would recommend parameters for cooperative annual data collection planning and the data structure necessary to design a data sharing network. The earlier work of the NPR-A Research and Monitoring Team (e.g., monitoring strategy, caribou model, and subsistence access model) may serve as a useful starting point for identifying some of the core data needs and planning work.
  • Directed research projects, informed by the above meeting and supported individually or collaboratively by NSSI members or affiliates, will be needed to address some management concerns.
Caribou
Caribou on the North Slope. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)


Overview and Management Relevance:

A number of challenging research questions came up in the discussion of caribou on the North Slope, but much of the exchange focused on the need for data sharing, study coordination, and the timely dissemination of results. Similarly, the health of caribou herds and their supporting ecosystems on the North Slope were important parts of the discussion, but it was the potential effects of industrial development and climate change on the use of those herds, particularly for subsistence harvest, that drove the discussion. Therefore, this summary focuses first on some of the perceived needs for management action and then, in a more general way, addresses the full suite of management questions, concerns, and needs discussed by the group.

The Senior Staff Committee of the NSSI presented over a dozen specific caribou-related management concerns for STAP consideration. These management concerns have been condensed into three statements of need:

  • For each North Slope herd, individual management plans are needed that consider herd health, access to and uses of each herd by various user groups, population dynamics parameters, each herd’s unique challenges (threats, uses, and management goals), and account for common uses of seasonal ranges among herds and potential movements between herds.
  • Interagency monitoring and research plans need to be developed for each North Slope caribou herd. Monitoring and research plans should be a product of and consistent with collaborative management planning efforts, and should elaborate on data currently being collected (including information on who is collecting data), on how existing data can be accessed, and on data not yet being collected.
  • A network is needed to share caribou information between and among herd managers, researchers, and user groups.

The STAP concurs with these statements of need. The STAP recognizes that caribou herd management plans are in place for the North Slope herds, but that the collaborative (both public and interagency) processes associated with these plans are varied. The STAP also recognizes that basic population dynamics and harvest information are being collected for each of these herds, in some cases as a result of interagency efforts. However, it is not clear that the existence or the availability of these data are apparent to agency, academic, industry, and public stakeholders in the management or research activities associated with the four caribou herds that calve on the North Slope: Western Arctic Herd (WAH), Teshekpuk Herd (TCH), Central Arctic Herd (CAH), and Porcupine Herd (PCH).

Each herd presents a somewhat unique set of challenges. The WAH is the largest herd in the State, has numerous users and thus potential user conflicts, is harvested across multiple state Game Management Units and by many villages, calves in a high coal potential area, and has seen population decreases in recent years. There is already a well developed collaborative management process in place for the WAH, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group.

The TCH may be the most important herd to several North Slope villages (Barrow, Nuiqsut, Atqasuk, and Wainwright) in terms of subsistence harvest. While it calves in an area with high oil and gas potential, up-to-now it has been exposed to relatively little oil and gas development. Therefore, the TCH is a herd that is likely not habituated to this form of human disturbance (see Topic 3 below).

The CAH calves in or near currently developed oilfields and might have been a “learning herd” for interactions with oil and gas development, but this ability to learn was limited because little baseline data were collected prior to oil and gas development. Nonetheless, research on this herd has helped to identify and mitigate some of the problems associated with development. Importantly, the TCH and CAH are the only two herds in North America whose numbers have generally been increasing since the 1980s.

The PCH calves in the 1002 area and the western Canadian coastal plain. The herd is jointly managed between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Canadian government through the International Porcupine Caribou Board. In addition, Canadian users have an established collaborative management process in place, the Porcupine Caribou Management Board. The PCH presents unique logistical challenges for population censuses, with the last successful census completed in 2001. The PCH had been in consistent decline before the 2001 census and there is concern that the population has continued to decrease.

Despite their differences, all of these herds share some common challenges (e.g., climate change), and the STAP strongly suggests coordination among research, monitoring, and management planners for each herd to maximize comparability (e.g., for monitoring protocols, study design, data format, etc.) and maximize the opportunity to jointly learn from and understand these shared challenges. The earlier work of the NPR-A Research and Monitoring Team (e.g., its monitoring strategy, caribou model, and subsistence access model) may serve as a useful starting point for identifying some of the core data needs and planning work. A focus on increased monitoring is promoted in the 2008 Arctic Report Card (http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard/biology.html). It notes that recent estimates indicate that many arctic caribou populations “may be entering a period of declining numbers” and that “the increased threats of climate change, increased industrial expansion in the north and the increased sophistication and mobility of harvesters will require more careful monitoring and analysis of population response.”

Certain types of data are uniformly needed and can serve more than one purpose. For example, population dynamics data (population size, data on initial calving rates and recruitment, and natural mortality and harvest information) are central to wildlife population modeling. Data on habitat condition (vegetation type and distribution) are key to implementing land management decisions. However, both of these core data types can also be used together for other purposes – for example, in assessing the response of wildlife populations to climate-driven vegetation changes. Notably, this latter type of data (vegetation type and distribution) overlaps nicely with ongoing NSSI-funded land cover work on the North Slope, reinforcing the value of current NSSI efforts to underpin and assist with needed future studies.

Other important types of data that are needed include:

  1. distribution and movement data obtained from satellite-collared animals across all herds and seasons;
  2. animal condition data, including sex and age, from harvested animals, as well as information on herds targeted by sport and subsistence hunters (e.g., which herds are being harvested by particular communities);
  3. improved documentation of subsistence and sport harvest data;
  4. potentially correlative weather data (temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation, snow cover and persistence, icing events, and other factors); and,
  5. accessible and spatially explicit data on the location and timing of ongoing and planned industrial activity (seismic operations, ice roads, pad development) across all seasons.

The management concerns discussed above and the science and information needs to address them were grouped by the STAP into five topics, each discussed below.

  1. Topic 1. Development of Management Plans for Each Herd

    The STAP supports the development, to the extent they do not already exist, of collaborative management planning processes for each of the four caribou herds that calve on the North Slope. The NSSI could facilitate initial communications to identify stakeholders, and potentially even underwrite facilitation and travel support for stakeholder meetings necessary to generate these management plans, particularly as such coordination will enhance scientific understanding of the shared challenges of all four herds (e.g., challenges associated with climate change). It will be important in the development of such management plans to involve all appropriate stakeholders (e.g., users, managers, and industry) and to evaluate the consistency of stipulations for oil and gas development and other anthropogenic impacts on North Slope ecosystems. Finally, given the concern for communications clarity, it will be important for each management plan to address how it will enable and maintain communications among stakeholders.

  2. Topic 2. Herd-Specific Data Requirements

    To support management planning processes and provide a sound basis for research and monitoring plans, it will be necessary to identify existing caribou data and the entity that collects and has access to these data. A directed caribou meeting could help accomplish this. In addition, the meeting would identify data not yet being collected to assist with identifying high priority data needs. A plan can then be developed in cooperation with GINA for identifying raw data and summary statistics structures, metadata requirements, and protocols and timelines for populating databases. This would help determine what, if any, pre-development measurements are needed.

  3. Topic 3. Directed Studies
    A number of the management concerns presented to the STAP pointed to the need for specific directed studies. Among the issues that fit in this category were:

    1. information on the winter ecology of caribou;
    2. assessing the appropriateness of land use stipulations and their value to caribou;
    3. seasonal variation in caribou food production under changing climate conditions;
    4. response of caribou herds not habituated to oil and gas exploration and development;
    5. how changing fire regimes and fire response may affect caribou distributions and caribou food sources; and,
    6. evaluation of current data collection methods and opportunities for improvement using advanced technologies.

    Many of these specific investigations could use remote sensing data combined with targeted on-the-ground monitoring for verification. Present methods of aerial surveys, photocensus, and use of radio collars could be re-examined to assess whether remote sensing technology/satellite tracking and GIS could play a significant role in monitoring herd movements and seasonal range use.

    It was also noted that some study opportunities arise when unusual events occur. For example, if there were catastrophic winter die-off of caribou, the NSSI could facilitate communications and help pool resources among agencies to document and monitor the event. Finally, the STAP believes that continued development of modeling efforts initiated by the NPR-A Research and Monitoring (RMT) team may serve as a critical first step in an effort to decouple local or regional anthropogenic impacts to caribou from those of climate change.

  4. Topic 4. Data Reporting and Sharing

    There has been a clear benefit from data sharing among the various caribou managers and key stakeholders. Agency management could pursue the assistance of GINA to design a usable data sharing network. GINA may also be an appropriate entity to store and share spatially explicit and associated metadata. Access to these and other relevant data (e.g., vegetation mapping) would assist wildlife managers with evaluating cause and effect relationships and gain a more complete understanding of anthropogenic and environmental impacts to caribou and their associated user groups.

  5. Topic 5. Anthropogenic and Subsistence Issues

    There is a perception that climate change, harvest, and industrial activities have had, or are having, a negative impact on caribou despite the fact that some populations of caribou that calve on the North Slope are near or at historic highs. Perhaps the most important way to address this perception is to investigate the historic extent and variability in seasonal range use and harvest among subsistence villages and sport hunters. This information can then be used to predict potential impacts of anthropogenic and environmental changes. An important component of this understanding will be a contemporary assessment of both western and traditional ecological knowledge. Direct dialogue among the land and caribou managers about the variability in population, distribution, harvest, and implications to the subsistence harvest is needed. By its nature, this dialogue will not be independent of current monitoring efforts conducted by land and wildlife managers, or of an evaluation of land use stipulations

Recommendations:

  1. Identify a means of improving the collaborative management process for each of the four caribou herds calving on the North Slope. Where necessary, consider the proper level of financial support for collaborative management processes.
  2. Organize a meeting with land and wildlife managers, industry, and other stakeholder groups to:
    • identify existing data and its accessibility;
    • coordinate data collection planning; and
    • assess and prioritize specific directed studies
    Additional meetings may be required, as necessary, to complete these tasks.
  3. Develop an understanding of the historic extent and variability in seasonal range use and harvest by subsistence and sport hunters. This assessment must incorporate and reflect both western and traditional ecological knowledge.


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