STUMBLING TOWARDS ENLIGHTENMENT: UNDERSTANDING CARIBOU DYNAMICS
I review what biologists now think we know about caribou dynamics (Rangifer tarandus) and how we came by this knowledge, in the hope that there are some lessons that will help us learn more efficiently in the future. Prior to the late 1940s, most knowledge about caribou was obtained from anecdotal accounts of explorers, miners, government officials, and from the traditional knowledge of Native peoples. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, there was a great leap forward due to the use of modern aircraft for wildlife surveys, the establishment of the wildlife management program at the University of Alaska, wolf (Canis lupus) control, and the increased availability of funding for wildlife research in Canada and Alaska. During the 1960s, particularly in Alaska, accumulation of knowledge slowed because of the change in administration from federal to state management, a shift in management and research priorities from caribou to moose (Alces alces), decreased funding and personnel for wildlife management, and because caribou were abundant throughout Alaska. Caribou were still viewed as a rather "unmanageable" species because of misunderstandings about population identity, population limitation and regulation, and caribou movements. Major declines in populations during the early 1970s, development of reliable radio collars, and much greater availability of affordable helicopters led to a renaissance in caribou research during the late 1970s. During the mid to late 1980s, new information accrued more slowly while most herds were increasing again. Widespread declines of caribou in the early 1990s, in conjunction with ongoing long-term research on population dynamics, weather, and predation, provided a large amount of new information. Knowledge about caribou dynamics, like the advancement of science, in general, has not come in a gradual way. There have been periods of stagnation when caribou populations were high, interspersed with periods of confusion, and then rapidly expanded research as herds declined. Despite greatly expanded knowledge, managers still have a limited ability to control caribou numbers, and the primary function of managers will continue to be providing for caribou hunting, while ensuring that hunting does not cause herds to decline to undesirably low levels. An increasingly important function for managers is providing accurate information to the public about caribou dynamics and the rationale for hunting regulations. Caribou biologists and managers should not be defensive or embarrassed about being wrong when new information casts doubt on old ideas, and creative new approaches to learning should be encouraged.
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