Emerging Issue Summary
SPECIES OF INTEREST – CARIBOU
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:
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:
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.
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