Linkages between large-scale climate patterns and the dynamics of Arctic caribou populations


  • Kyle Joly,

  • David R. Klein,

  • David L. Verbyla,

  • T. Scott Rupp,

  • F. Stuart Chapin III

K. Joly (, National Park Service, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and Arctic Network Inventory and Monitoring Program, Fairbanks, AK 99709, USA. – D. R. Klein and F. S. Chapin III, Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, Inst. of Arctic Biology, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA. – D. L. Verbyla and T. S. Rupp, Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA.


Recent research has linked climate warming to global declines in caribou and reindeer (both Rangifer tarandus) populations. We hypothesize large-scale climate patterns are a contributing factor explaining why these declines are not universal. To test our hypothesis for such relationships among Alaska caribou herds, we calculated the population growth rate and percent change of four arctic herds using existing population estimates, and explored associations with indices of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The AO, which more strongly affects eastern Alaska, was negatively associated with the population trends of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and Central Arctic Herd, the easternmost of the herds. We hypothesize that either increased snowfall or suboptimal growing conditions for summer forage plants could explain this negative relationship. Intensity of the PDO, which has greatest effects in western Alaska, was negatively associated with the growth rate of the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd in northwestern Alaska, but the Western Arctic Herd in western Alaska displayed the opposite trend. We suggest that the contrasting patterns of association relate to the spatial variability of the effects of the PDO on western and northwestern Alaska. Although predation and winter range quality have often been considered the primary causes of population variation, our results show that large-scale climate patterns may play an important role in caribou population dynamics in arctic Alaska. Our findings reveal that climate warming has not acted uniformly to reduce caribou populations globally. Further research should focus on the relative importance of mechanisms by which climate indices influence caribou population dynamics.