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Grim revelations
Biologists find skulls of at least 143 caribou killed in Kenai avalanche

By Jon Little
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: October 16, 2002)

A deadly avalanche in the Kenai Mountains killed at least 143 Killey River herd caribou last winter. Biologists returned several times this summer, including August when this picture was taken, to investigate the site. By now, the valley is under this season's blanket of fresh snow. (Courtesy of Rick Ernst, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The death toll of caribou killed in a single devastating avalanche last winter high in the Kenai Mountains has reached a dizzying 143, according to a biologist who helped count the skulls.

"It's the only incident I've ever heard of where so many animals from such a small herd were taken out," said Rick Ernst, a biologist and pilot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before the snow slide, the Killey River herd numbered about 700.

Several trips to the site, near Skilak Glacier 30 miles southwest of Sterling, turned up bone after bone as summer's brief heat melted most of the snow from the rocky tundra.

Biologists made new piles of skulls on each visit to make sure they weren't recounting the same carcasses.

The Killey River herd grazes on lichens growing on the flanks of mountains between Tustumena and Skilak lakes.

Investigators believe a string of caribou began traversing the steep, snowy ridge near Alpine Lake in late December 2001, and their hooves triggered an avalanche that swept scores of the animals downhill at speeds approaching 90 mph. Warm, wet storms dumping snow over a hard-frozen crust were triggering other slides at the time, according to experts.

This avalanche began at an elevation of 4,600 feet and petered out at 2,700 feet. Some of the caribou rolled and bounced the entire way to the bottom of the treeless slope.

The force coughed snow and animals over a bench, depositing the remains in this U-shaped valley. They lay there undetected, by humans at least, for about two months.

Ernst was the first to suspect something was wrong.

He was flying along the steep ridges bordering Alpine Lake in early March listening for radio signals from 21 collared caribou. The transmitters issue a distinct mortality beacon when an animal hasn't stirred for several hours, and Ernst picked up five of the tones while observing the snow slide from the cockpit of his plane. He heard four more of the mortality signals on a later flight.

If nine of 21 collared caribou were caught in the slide, he reasoned, there probably were many more.

Investigators helicoptered into the area in May for a first look from the ground and were stunned by the carnage. They saw broken bones poking out of a debris field blanketed in gray fur. Bears, eagles and wolves had feasted on the remains.

Biologists went back in July, and found yet more carcasses revealed by melting snow. Ernst returned one last time Sept. 9 and found more dead caribou.

Even at that time, snow still covered some of the area. So more animals may lie underfoot, and some wounded may have wandered off to die, he said. He described the 143 figure as "a minimum." By now, the valley is under this season's blanket of fresh snow.

Before the avalanche, state and federal biologists were worried about the Killey River herd growing too large and overgrazing its winter forage. They were encouraging hunters to thin the herd's ranks by about 200.

So will this single hit have any bearing on next fall's Killey River caribou hunt? Ernst said it was too early to say.

A lot of the animals killed by the avalanche were cows and calves, so the herd will take a while to recover, he said.

A new Killey River caribou head count this fall may help biologists from the state Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service gauge the situation, he said. The Board of Game meets in March to decide.
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