Caribou populations in Alaska are important to both resident and visiting hunters and provide a large source of income for commercial operators and local communities who provide services to these hunters. Caribou have also provided a traditional staple food source for native Alaskan communities. Moreover, caribou are important prey for wolves and bears and their health and population size impact the entire food web in the region.
The 2013 Arctic Report Card from NOAA reported declining populations of caribou throughout Alaska. Several possible mechanisms may be responsible for the declines, including changes in climate.
This project aimed to form a research consortium to bring together scientists and partners and to collaborate with two Alaskan Landscape Conservation Cooperatives with the goal of understanding the relationship between climate, vegetation, and caribou. The research conducted under this project used the relationship between climate and caribou as a focal point to identify and explore the connections between climate, movement of soil nutrients, plant quality for animal foraging, caribou dietary behavior, and herd dynamics for caribou in Alaska, Western Canada, and Svalbard.
Based on prior analyses, this project has now developed into an NSF-funded Central Arctic Caribou Herd program lead by Welker and colleagues from the University of Alaska - Anchorage, South Dakota State University, Colorado State University, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska - Fairbanks, University of Maryland/NASA and USGS. The focal work is continuing to seek understanding as to what are the nutritional tundra landscape traits, how do they vary seasonally, how do these nutritional and energetic landscapes correspond to caribou foraging behavior as well as questions of diet seasonality and how do conditions of the future effect forage quantity and quality using long-term tundra experiments. The consortium is part of the NASA ABoVE program as a partner project and the consortium is collaborating with the NSF NEON effort in Alaska as well.