The caribou photos on this site are available to license as stock photos or purchase as fine art display pictures for home or office decor. They were photographed during my many excursions across the state of Alaska. Most of the natural history information below was excerpted from the Alaska Fish and Game Notebook series on wildlife.
Photographing Alaska’s Caribou
Perhaps the easiest location to photograph caribou in Alaska is Denali National Park. Although the population of the herd there has diminished, both the habituated animals, and the park road access, create excellent photography options. Not to mention, a broad range of scenic backgrounds.
The herd populations in the arctic are considerable, and photographing the epic migrations in that region can be amazing, although hit ad miss due to the variation in migration patterns. It is much more logistically complicated, accessing remote wilderness areas via bush plane or through river access.
Caribou hunting along the James Dalton Highway which transects the Brooks range in arctic Alaska, has increased considerably in recent years. This is primarily due to the recent law that enables bow hunting from the road. This has changed photography of the animals in that region, as the animals appear to be a little more wary and tend to stay further from the road.
The latter August and September months are preferred if one seeks to capture the animal with a fresh hide growing thick in preparation for winter. In addition, they begin to shed the velvet on their antlers in late August and sparring begins between the males as they approach the rut.
In general, caribou are pretty curious animals, and if you take your time and approach them very slowly, with long waits between movement, you can approach them within a reasonable distance for photography.
Caribou live in the arctic tundra, mountain tundra, and northern forests of North America, Russia, and Scandinavia. The world population is about 5 million. Caribou in Alaska are distributed in 32 herds (or populations). A herd uses a calving area that is separate from the calving areas of other herds, but different herds may mix together on winter ranges. According to a survey recently completed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska’s largest caribou herd, the Western Arctic Caribou herd, is down to 235,000 animals from it’s peak in of 490,000 animals in 2013. (2016)
Caribou are the only member of the deer family (Cervidae) in which both sexes grow antlers. Antlers of adult bulls are large; those of adult cows are much shorter and are usually more slender and irregular. In late fall, caribou are clove-brown with a white neck, rump, and feet and often have a white flank stripe.
The hair of newborn calves is generally reddish-brown. Newborn calves weigh an average of 13 pounds (6 kg) and grow very quickly. They may double their weight in 10-15 days. Weights of adult bulls average 350-400 pounds (159-182 kg). However, weights of 700 pounds (318 kg) have been recorded. Mature females average 175-225 pounds (80-120 kg). Caribou in northern and southwestern Alaska are generally smaller than caribou in the Interior and in southern parts of the state.
Calving occurs in mid-late May in Interior Alaska and in early June in northern and southwestern Alaska. If females are in very good condition they can breed when they are 16 months old, but in most herds they do not breed until they are 28 months old. Wolves, grizzly bears, and golden eagles kill large numbers of newborn calves.
After calving, caribou collect in large “post-calving aggregations” to avoid predators and escape mosquitoes and warble flies. These large groups of caribou stay together in the high mountains and along seacoasts where wind and cool temperatures protect them from summer heat and insects. After insect numbers decline in August, caribou scatter out and feed heavily on willow leaves and mushrooms to regain body weight.
Mature bulls frequently have more than three inches of fat on the back and rump, which is used to provide energy needed during the rut. The necks of adult bull caribou swell enormously in September due to the natural production of steroid hormones like testosterone. Fighting begins in early September and becomes more frequent as the rut approaches at the end of the month.
Most fights between bulls are brief bouts, but violent fights occur, and many bulls are seriously injured or killed during the rut. Many injured or exhausted bulls are killed by wolves and bears after the rut. The largest bulls shed their antlers in late October, but small bulls and non-pregnant cows do not shed their antlers until April. Pregnant females usually retain their antlers until calves are born in late May or early June.
Like most herd animals, the caribou must keep moving to find adequate food. Large herds often migrate long distances (up to 400 miles/640 km) between summer and winter ranges. Smaller herds may not migrate at all. In summer (May-September), caribou eat the leaves of willows, sedges, flowering tundra plants, and mushrooms. They switch to lichens (reindeer moss), dried sedges (grasslike plants), and small shrubs (like blueberry) in September.
In Alaska, caribou prefer treeless tundra and mountains during all seasons, but many herds winter in the boreal forest (taiga). Calving areas are usually located in mountains or on open, coastal tundra. Caribou tend to calve in the same general areas year after year, but migration routes used for many years may suddenly be abandoned in favor of movements to new areas with more food. Changing movements can create problems for the Native people in Alaska and Canada who depend upon caribou for food.
There are approximately 950,000 wild caribou in Alaska (including some herds that are shared by Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory). Caribou are somewhat cyclic in number, but the timing of declines and increases, and the size to which herds grow is not very predictable. Although overhunting caused some herds to remain low in the past, today, varying weather patterns (climate), overpopulation, predation by wolves and grizzly bears, and disease outbreaks determine whether most herds increase or decrease.
In the 1970s people were concerned about the effect of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, expanding oil development, and increased disturbance from use of aircraft and snowmobiles on caribou. Although there was some displacement of caribou calving in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, in general, caribou have not been adversely affected by human activities in Alaska. Pipelines and most other developments are built to allow for caribou movements, and caribou have shown us that they can adapt to the presence of people and machines. As human activities expand in Alaska, the great challenge for caribou management is for man to consider the needs of our caribou herds and ensure that they remain a visible, healthy part of our landscape.
Text: Patrick Valkenburg, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Wildlife Notebook Series
Revised and reprinted 1999