Caribou, well-known for their immense antlers and long migrations, are found throughout the northern regions of North America, Europe, Asia, and Greenland. In Europe, caribou are commonly called reindeer, but this term applies only to the semi-domesticated form when used in North America. Of the caribou, we hunt the Western Arctic Herd a.k.a. the Alaskan caribou, which are primarily known as the barren-ground subspecies and are prized for the antlers of the bull.
Very often people still confuse these animals as their counterpart, the reindeer. Although in Alaska, that name “Reindeer” is used for a more domesticated variety that is often herded by native peoples OR more popularly known as “Rudolf, Dancer, Prancer & Vixon”!
An adult male can weigh as much as 500 pounds and be over five feet tall at the shoulder – Keep in mind: Once you have them down and have dressed them, you should only be dealing with approximately 125 – 150 #’s of meat. They are also known for their unique antlers, which can grow 3-1/2 feet long and over 4 feet from left to right. They are second in size only to moose antlers. Unusual, but true; female caribou also have antlers, unlike most other deer.
Because of their large size, it’s a fact that caribou are fast, they can run up to 50 miles per hour. They often travel thousands of miles migrating across the tundra and have been known to go as far as 35 miles a day.
During the spring migration, the caribou herds number in the tens of thousands or more which is not unheard of for these animals. But, during the Alaska caribou hunting season, those huge herds will have split into much smaller numbers, typically a few dozen to a hundred or more depending on the time of year. The caribou migration is one of the great wonders of the natural world. Each year, between summer and winter, they travel hundreds of miles mainly to find more sheltered locales. For example, the Porcupine herd spends its summers in the flat coastal plain of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Yukon, Canada. Here they give birth to their calves. After birthing, every fall, they migrate from this area to the Brooks Range to spend the winter. The mountainous Brooks Range sheltered and is a better feeding ground in the winter. The caribou use their large hooves to scoop through loose snow to find plants to eat. Throughout the year, caribou tend to favor the leaves of willows, sedges, flowering tundra plants, and mushrooms, but subsist mainly on lichens in the winter months.
Caribou in Alaska are distributed in 32 known herds totaling close to one million individuals. Each herd uses its own unique calving area, but different herds may mix together while on their winter ranges. Many herds winter in the boreal forest, but during the remainder of the year caribou prefer treeless tundra and mountains. Population numbers of caribou are somewhat returning and this returning nature affects the number of caribou that can be legally harvested. However, in a typical year, hunters harvest about 22,000 caribou in Alaska annually.
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