A large barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) population (the Bering Seacoast Herd) historically ranged across southwest Alaska. The size of this herd peaked in the early 1860s but declined by the late 1880s. Caribou numbers remained low in southwest Alaska for the next 100 years. Biologists have argued that periodic dispersal has been an important factor in caribou population dynamics. However, others conclude there was no credible evidence that significant interchange between herds has ever occurred in Alaska. Since 1981, we monitored 318 radiocollared caribou and documented dramatic population growth, erratic movements, shifts from traditional ranges, and changes in migratory behavior. We also documented shifts in calving distribution that may contrast with conventional concepts of calving tradition and herd identity. Some biologists have concluded caribou herds can be considered closed populations for management purposes because the number of dispersing caribou is so small that it has no influence on population dynamics. We propose that the current definition of a herd may be appropriate for short-term management; however, over long time frames and large spatial scales, metapopulations may better describe caribou ecology and be more useful in long-term caribou conservation.
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Vol. 69 • No. 3