Caribou, Skolai Pass and the University Range, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park

Woodland Caribou herd, Skolai Pass, the University Range in the background, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

Here’s another image from my recent trip to Skolai Pass. This, along with the previous image posted of Mt. Bona and Mt Churchill, was taken on the first day of our arrival in the pass. Pretty nice day, eh?

These caribou are part of the Chisana Herd (pronounced ‘Chushana’) and are, according to legend, the only Woodland Caribou herd in Alaska, and maybe ought be listed on the Endangered Species Act, possibly the strongest environmental legislation in the US. Woodland Caribou are found mostly in Canada (possibly a very small population in Idaho and Washington – often referred to as a separate subspecies, Mountain Caribou), with the great herds of Alaskan caribou, such as the Porcupine Herd, or Central Arctic Herd of the north slope, like the caribou more seen in Denali National Park, being Barren Ground Caribou. So the Skolai caribou, from the Chisana Herd, are special. So special, in fact, they have numbers on them. The National Park Service have collared some of the caribou, and hence you can see the obtrusive, ugly, gaudy,out of fashion blue and yellow collars on the 2 caribou on the right of the frame. The National Park Service biologists will be pleased to hear, I’m sure, that numbers 84 and 76 are doing extremely well, it seems.

Actually, the herd have been in decline for some years, and a concerted effort by both Canadian biologists and the Park Service folks from Wrangell – St. Elias National Park are trying to manage the population best they know how. Predation, largely from grizzly bears, on newborn caribou calves has been “determined” to be the cause of the struggling herd numbers. It seems the over-hunting of years gone by has left the herd population smaller than it should be, and the (now) relatively few calves born each year are taken by bears – hence the population isn’t increasing, but declining. It’d be a loss to see such a special herd disappear. The answer, it seems, is to “hold back” the herd when they begin their annual migration across the (our) border from Canada to the US .. their traditional calving ground is in the US, and apparently US grizzlies eat too many caribou calves. The process they’re trying at the moment involves holding the herd back, so they drop their calves in Canada, in an area with fewer grizzly bears, until the calves are slightly older, and able to outrun the grizzlies. For those who’ve had the great fortune to see young caribou calves racing around the tundra, you know how they do love to run.

The plan appears to be working, and the population decline has slowed, if not leveled out. I’m not sure of the exact situation at the moment, so if any of you reader people know more, please feel free to post it here.

A few of the differences between Barren ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti or Barren Ground groenlandicus) and Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou):

Woodland caribou tend to be larger, particularly the bulls, with larger antler racks. A more sedentary life is common, and they do not follow such wide migration routes, often living a more local life – the caribou at Skolai are often there all winter long, for example. Because they do not have such vast migration patterns, they often disperse into smaller groups, usually based around females and their calves. These smaller group dynamics are somewhat different to, say, a herd of 50 000 caribou found on the north slope of the barren Arctic region. Hence the Woodland caribou bulls are often protecting or fighting over a small (I suppose it’s small – who determines what a “small harem” is), rather than the mass matings of the barren ground caribou.

That said, the largest herd of caribou in the world is, of course, Woodland Caribou, the George River herd of Quebec/Labrador. Being sub-species, the lines are gray – barren ground and woodland caribou do interbreed, and countless arguments persist over which particular species caribou A might belong to. Some folks (particularly in Alaska) say the Chisana herd are Barren Ground caribou, and many Canadians argue that the genetics and ecological behavior rank them as Woodland Caribou (See “Wild Mammals of North America”, by George A. Feldhamer, Bruce Carlyle Thompson and Joseph A. Chapman). Today, I understand they’re generally accepted as Woodland Caribou by the scientific community who peer into such things.

Either way, they’re super cool, and always a treat to see. I crested this ridge as our group approached the area I wanted to camp, and the caribou were curiously looking towards us. I knelt down out of sight, dropped my pack, and pulled out my camera, knowing the caribou would likely approach for a better look. They did, and stood alert suddenly as they came over the ridge, raced to the east, posed for a second with this awesome backdrop, and great light coming from behind me, then they raced around behind us, and disappeared into Chitistone Pass area. Barren ground or Woodland, they don’t seem to understand light too well, and the shots I made of them after this are pretty much all a waste; the backlight too harsh and glaring to make anything much of interest. But I was more than happy to have caught this moment.

Skolai Pass has been good to me over the years, this year no less. The landscape is simply stunning, and it’s not a bad wildlife area either. This trip I saw a golden eagle, a merlin chasing a Lapland Longspur (the smaller bird got away), about 300 Willow ptarmigan, a dozen or so wWhite-tailed Ptarmigan, fox, caribou, Dall sheep, marmots, ground squirrels, and a few other birds, including, I believe, a flicker. We didn’t see any bear, but we had such good luck photographing a grizzly there in July I can’t complain. I saw a lot of wolf sign this trip, and was actually surprised I didn’t see one in the flesh – there was a lot of tracks and scat around. I also managed to get a photo of another critter I really wanted to get some shots of in the park – a predator, voracious, extremely active, and one not commonly seen in the mountains. I’ll give you a hint – can you say mustelid?

Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) herd, Skolai Pass with the University Range in the background, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Cheers

Carl

PS – I’ll be gone a while .. a trip I’m REALLY looking forward to. I’ll try to upload a post for while I’m away, then make up for it when I return. Hopefully.

PPS – I edited this note .. I had been informed, incorrectly, that the herd were listed on the ESA, but sources that need to remain anon have disclosed otherwise. Sorry for the error in my initial post.

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5 thoughts on “Caribou, Skolai Pass and the University Range, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park

  1. Doug Roane

    Man, I’m jealous! I didn’t have my act together soon enough to get a good one, but this shot is awesome. Your love of the area is so apparent in your writing, and thanks for the great caribou lesson. Great blog!

  2. Carl D Post author

    Hey Doug,

    Yeah, I’m bummed you missed it – though it was over pretty quick, for sure. This is the only real keeper I got here.

    Cheers

    Carl

  3. Russell

    Lovely caribou photo, but that griz was awesome…. what’s the name of that really cool glacier? I keep forgetting.
    Russell

  4. Carl D Post author

    Hey Russell,

    I think what you’re referring to is known as Russell Glacier. I’m surprised you don’t recall that. 🙂

    You’re right, the griz was totally awesome.

    Cheers

    Carl

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