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Caribou are rather large members of the deer family. Their broad, concave hoofs spread to aid walking on soft ground and are good for digging in snow. Both sexes grow antlers that in males serve as ornaments and weapons for fighting rivals during the breeding season. Alaskan caribou are clove-brown with a white neck and rump. Chukotkan reindeer, as a result of domestication, have varied pelt combinations of brown, grey, black and white in the same herd.
In Alaska hunters harvest more caribou than any other big game species. Although in recent years over-harvest does not seem to be a major threat, management of the hunt is difficult because of a poor understanding of the great natural fluctuation of caribou populations and fragmentation of management authority among different governmental agencies. Allocations are sometimes controversial, particularly because caribou remain the basis of subsistence in much of the rural North.
Habitat & Diet
Caribou live in tundra and boreal forest regions of both Eurasia and North America, on Greenland and on large northern islands. Within Beringia, they occupy eastern Yakutia, the Anadyr highlands and much of western Alaska , but are absent on most of the Chukotka and Seward peninsulas, where they have been supplanted by reindeer.
Caribou that winter on the eastern Seward Peninsula are part of the Western Arctic herd. In spring this herd migrates to calving grounds in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range . In fall they return south in spectacular migrations. This herd has experienced drastic fluctuations. During a low point in the late 1800's caribou disappeared from the Seward Peninsula . The herd then increased to about 240,000 in 1970, declined again to 75,000, then increased to 340,000 in 1988. It is now the largest in Alaska and part of the herd, as many as 50,000, can again be found on the eastern Seward Peninsula in winter.
Caribou are well adapted to winter conditions. To cope with scarcities and hardships they reduce food intake and lower their metabolic rate. Lichens (including "reindeer moss") are their most important winter food. Caribou shift winter ranges from year to year, which minimizes overgrazing. Since heavy snow or ice conditions can make it difficult to dig down to food, they often winter in forested areas where snow cover may be less and lichens growing on trees can be eaten.
Caribou are social animals living in herds; herds are defined by their use of the same general area as calving grounds. In spring pregnant cows lead the migration to the calving grounds, where each will give birth to a single calf. Newborns can walk within an hour and in a few days they can outrun a person. Spring finds the herd feeding on succulent new vegetation; grasses, sedges, flowering plants, horsetails and the leaves of willows. In mid-summer the harassment of mosquitoes and flies can drive the animals to windy coastal areas or old snow patches for relief. In late August or early September the herd begins to drift toward its winter range. Mating occurs enroute during late September and October.
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