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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

KANUTI: Bird crew records first documented caribou calving within the Refuge

Region 7, October 6, 2012
During May, when this photo was taken, almost all caribou that still have antlers are pregnant females.
During May, when this photo was taken, almost all caribou that still have antlers are pregnant females. - Photo Credit: n/a
There is not much tundra in Kanuti Refuge; however, the area near the cabin has some large, lichen-rich areas that should make caribou feel at home!
There is not much tundra in Kanuti Refuge; however, the area near the cabin has some large, lichen-rich areas that should make caribou feel at home! - Photo Credit: n/a

”Will I see caribou on Kanuti Refuge?” This was one of the many questions my young English volunteer, Dylan Smith, asked me that first day we arrived at the Refuge’s field cabin during breakup in early May 2012. I had to tell Dylan “very unlikely” because in my previous four springs working there, we had only seen one caribou (in 2011). That was okay, given that our focus has been studying the breeding ecology of Whimbrels, a large migratory shorebird. After all, caribou are primarily an animal of the tundra and Kanuti Refuge is primarily boreal forest and wetlands. Still, most winters we occasionally see small numbers of caribou wander onto the Refuge from the small Ray Mountains Herd to the south, and perhaps once or twice a decade we see larger groups from the Western Arctic Herd wintering in the Refuge. Indeed, the winter of 2011–2012 was just such a year when at least 2,000 caribou arrived from the north in late fall, foraged on lichens in the old growth black spruce woodlands, and departed in early spring. Little did I know that Dylan had a bit of the “luck of the British” in him, however.

 

Only four days into our two-month stint and just one mile from our cabin, we observed a group of three caribou, including one with antlers. During May, almost all caribou that still have antlers are pregnant females. A photograph of this group suggested that all three were actually females. One week later we saw two separate groups of two caribou each with antlers (likely all pregnant females). Finally, for a week beginning in late May, we observed a female with a tiny calf beside her near our bird study area. This is the first time Refuge personnel have documented calving by caribou in the Refuge!

In addition to the many beaver and muskrat that live near the cabin, Dylan went on to see all of the other big mammals that reside within the Refuge: moose, black and brown bears, lynx, river otter, and even a curious wolf that approached within twenty yards of him. Observing these animals for the first time was pretty special to him. While actually getting to see these elusive and rare big mammals is always a thrill for me too, the stuffy old biologist in me was most excited about spotting my first Kanuti Refuge new-born caribou calf.

Written by Chris Harwood, Wildlife Biologist (Avian)

Contact Info: Joanna Fox, (907) 456-0330, joanna_fox@fws.gov