Where in the World Can You Hunt Caribou? Part 1

Reindeer: North American Introduced

The US Government introduced reindeer from Siberia onto the Seward Peninsula in Alaska with the idea of producing a domestic animal the native communities could farm. The government managed these for the native communities for several years, including herding them and removing wolves to increase their numbers. They were also translocated to other sites within Alaska, and one group was even herded to the McKenzie River delta in Northwest Territories. Today, free-ranging reindeer can still be found on the Seward and Kotzebue peninsulas and on Nunivak, Umnak, Kodiak and Atka islands. Hunting opportunities are available through native corporations and outfitters on Atka and Nunivak and a state license on Kodiak.

The island populations are largely predator free (except on Kodiak) and these reindeer often grow to enormous size. Those taken on Atka Island, for example, average above the B&C minimum for barren-ground caribou, making them highly attractive trophies. Of course, getting to any of the Aleutian Islands is its own adventure and hunts are conducted in cooperation with native corporations, so they are expensive. Even as an exotic species, they represent the top of the world’s trophies for caribou/reindeer and should be considered by any trophy collector.

Alaska-Yukon Barren-Ground Caribou

All caribou in Alaska, plus those in Yukon north of the Stewart and Yukon rivers and those in Northwest Territories north of latitude 66N and west of the McKenzie River are considered Alaska Yukon barren-ground caribou. Often simply called “barren-ground caribou,” they are probably the most hunted of the western caribou.

The species is largely migratory, though those on the southern end of the range in Alaska (such as the isolated groups on the Kenai Peninsula) don’t travel as far as those in the north. Alaska-Yukon barren-ground caribou arguably have the largest antlers as a group, with the B&C minimum of 400 the highest record book minimum for caribou.

Subscriber Armen Avedissian (Report 10966) hunted Alaska caribou with Deltana Outfitters (907-750-4882; http://deltana.com) this past Aug. Despite millions of mosquitoes and scarce caribou, Avedissian recommends the outfitter and hunt saying, “This is a true fair-chase hunt in beautiful Alaskan tundra.” We have 12 reports, all positive, on Deltana, and 35 positive reports on Arctic Rivers Guide Service (907-486-5253; www.huntfish.us). These latter reports underscore the difficulties of hunting migratory animals, as a number of reports list caribou as sought but not taken. Even long-proven outfitters can’t always deliver.

In Canada, nonresident aliens must be guided for caribou, and there are few hunts specifically for Alaska Yukon barren-ground caribou. Those offered take advantage of caribou from the migratory Porcupine herd arriving on the winter range, and late-season hunts (Oct.) are necessary. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of barren-ground caribou are taken in Alaska. Though nonresident aliens must be guided in Alaska, US residents can still hunt caribou self-guided (see page 10).

That said, nonresident caribou opportunities are declining in Alaska overall as herds decline. Nonresident opportunities are gone on the Alaska Peninsula, and the Subsistence Board has closed parts of the Western Arctic herd to nonsubsistence hunting (including to Alaska residents who don’t live in the area). Alaska Game and Fish Department continues to try to manage predation by bears and wolves to prop up specific populations with low recruitment rates.

There are stories of hunters who, on DIY hunts, were flown out by a transportation service and dropped in an area without caribou. Hoping to catch the migration, the hunters typically hike miles from camp to see few if any caribou. The transporter is prohibited from guiding you (i.e., you need to tell him where you want to go) and has no stake in your success. The best bet for a successful caribou hunt continues to be guided hunts in the center of the state with established outfitters who can fly you out to intercept the migration. Such outfitters and guides have a direct stake in your success and will spend the time and money to get you into the caribou. It’s also nice to have their assistance in getting your bull back to camp and taking care of the trophy. Plan an open schedule on any of these hunts, as air service delays are common.

Mountain Caribou

Western Canada is home to isolated pockets of mountain caribou, each herd having its own summer and winter range. For record book classification, mountain caribou is found south of the Stewart and Yukon rivers in Yukon Territory, south of latitude 66N and west of the McKenzie River/Great Slave Lake/Slave River region in Northwest Territories.

All caribou in British Columbia and Alberta, with the exception of the extreme NE corner east of the Slave River, are mountain caribou. At one time, the Selkirk herd extended into northern Idaho and NE Washington. But the range has contracted, and they are only rare visitors, if present at all.

Mountain caribou are characterized by tall, relatively narrow antlers with plenty of mass on top. These caribou live year-round with wolves and rely on steep, open country to allow them to detect and escape predators. Most are hunted as part of a moose/caribou or sheep/caribou combo. As such, the type of hunt varies considerably, including ATV, horseback or backpack hunts, but in all cases, expect a relatively strenuous hunt in steep terrain.

In Report 10649, subscriber Col. Pat McMahon recommends his 2016 hunt with Yukon Big Game Outfitters (250-264-2512; www.yukonbiggame.com), which produced what he describes as a great mountain caribou. Subscriber Monty Davis (Report 10671) also took a 360 B&C mountain caribou in 2016 with Anchor Bar Expeditions (403-646-5714; www.anchorbarexpeditions.com).

Central Canada Barren-Ground Caribou

Central Canada barren-ground caribou is found principally in Northwest Territories and Nunavut, east of the McKenzie River, Great Slave Lake and Slave River. In Nunavut, the caribou on King William, Southampton, Coats and Baffin islands are considered central Canada barren-ground caribou.

At the southern end of the range, a small part of Alberta east of the Slave River, northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan are also part of the range, especially in the winter. There are seven identified herds, and, with the exception of the island populations, they are highly migratory. Some herds are declining; it’s suspected that other herds have merged and perhaps changed their migratory routes.

In June 2016 (Article 3809), we wrote about central Canada barren-ground caribou, noting that the best hunting for this subspecies is probably past. Caribou numbers have not improved, but hunts are still viable.

Outfitters on the southern edge of the range market hunts as multispecies combo hunts with a separate trophy fee for caribou, recognizing that they can offer moose, black bear and a possible chance at caribou.

Another trend: some central Canada barren-ground caribou hunts include muskox in the fall. Almost all hunts in the northern part of the range include First Nation communities and considerable travel, so the hunts are expensive. However, if we are to learn anything from the Québec-Labrador experience, it may be that these populations should be hunted while still relatively plentiful.

Arctic Island Caribou

The caribou of the far north Arctic islands are the smallest of the world’s caribou, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds live weight. In winter, they are almost completely white and have proportionately smaller antlers. They are beautiful trophies but require significant effort to reach their range and successfully hunt. Arctic Island caribou exist in Northwest Territories and Nunavut, including the Boothia Peninsula, Banks, Victoria, Prince of Wales and Somerset islands, as well as the islands north of the Parry Channel. They live in small groups with relatively stable home ranges. All hunts there are conducted with local First Nation communities, and you can expect an arctic experience—snowmobile travel and cold temperatures even early in fall. US Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at some of the populations of Arctic Island caribou for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As this is written, you may still import this species into the US.

Subscribers Adam Biondich (Report 10729) and Robert Duhadaway (10402) filed reports on combination hunts for caribou and muskox with Canada North Outfitting (450-376-4868; www.canadanorthoutfitting.com) in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Biondich reports taking both trophies, saying, “The Arctic is one of the most interesting and beautiful places I’ve ever been. I looked at 120 to 150 caribou before deciding to take the bull I did.” Duhadaway was successful on caribou, not muskox, but recommends the hunt.

Woodland Caribou

All forest-dwelling woodland caribou on mainland Canada are protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), Canada’s ESA equivalent. That leaves Newfoundland as the only option for woodland caribou hunts. These caribou are more compact than barren-ground caribou, with shorter, thicker antlers that can have many points. The B&C minimum is 265 inches.

A downward cycle in the caribou population beginning in the early 2000s led the province to reduce tags over the last decade, but the population (and tag numbers) have stabilized as of late. Cory Foster of the Newfoundland Labrador Outfitters Association (NLOA) told us that the population has been estimated at between 29,000 and 32,000 caribou as of Feb. 2017.

“There are seven or eight distinct herds that overwinter in southeastern Newfoundland. A few herds have stable or rebounding populations, including the largest, the Middle Ridge herd.

“Hunters should expect to book at least a year in advance, and inquiries have been up since Québec announced that it would close caribou hunting. Nonresident tags are allocated to outfitters, most with only one or two tags. I know of one outfitter who is sold out until 2021.”

Newfoundland issued 267 nonresident tags in 2017. A basic caribou hunt (often combined with moose and black bear) can range from $5,000 to $8,000 or more, with costs higher for fly-in hunts. The overall success rate runs about 90%, but outfitters who provide fly-in access to the Middle Ridge herd run closer to 100% success.

Our latest report on Newfoundland comes from subscriber Tim Geppert, who booked a caribou and moose combo with Pine Ridge Lodge through Patty Curnette of the Global Sportsman (830-755-9191; www.theglobalsportsman). Owner Wayne Holloway guided Geppert on his hunt. “We took a helicopter to the caribou area,” says Geppert. “I was able to look over a lot of nice animals and took a great bull. The caribou don’t see many people and we were able to photograph some real monsters up close after tagging out. Holloway is an excellent outfitter, and this is a real adventure in a great location.”

Most of the Newfoundland outfitters in our database have caribou tags and many others do as well. NLOA lists 59 caribou outfitters on its webpage at www.nloa.ca/categories/woodland-caribou.