How do we keep the state’s moose population healthy?
Moose are in the middle of the heat in most parts of the interior. The early snow made moose easily visible along the Denali Highway and the Richardson. Don’t forget the tracks. Moose can’t hide their tracks. The result is that wildlife managers are not the only ones who can spot and count moose from the air; anyone who chooses to go to the field can get a good idea of the number of moose in a given area.
Certainly, a snowmobile trip to one’s preferred hunting territory is not a good indicator of the overall moose population in a unit or sub-unit. However, if a number of people are on the ground and bring the information they’ve gathered to their local fisheries and game consultative meeting, a picture can emerge that may indicate local trends.
Moose are studied until death. Anyone involved in Board of Game decisions or ADF & G decisions on how to stabilize moose populations is very aware of the number of times the “wheel” has been reinvented. Each new round of management swears they are now right and previous protocols have all been established on limited information. This is arguably true to some extent. This will continue to be true as we move forward in ungulate management.
Many comparisons have been made with the management of the Scandinavian moose and the direction of our management in Alaska. It’s a relationship of apples and oranges. Food availability, access to hunting areas, climatic differences, and predator impacts bear little or no similarity to the management of Alaska. Virtually all moose in Sweden live within half a mile of a maintained road and have a field to feed on. And how many bears eat moose calves in this country? Forget the management comparison.
Winter culling and predators are the biggest unknowns for our Alaskan moose. The success rate for hunters is relatively low in Alaska. We have many hunters and many restrictions on what animals we can legally take. The seasons are short. Access is limited in most hunting areas resulting in overcrowded conditions in areas that most hunters can reach.
Everyone has an ATV; thus, trail systems often have more traffic than the main road. There is no solution to this problem. I guess 90% of hunters statewide have road access to less than a third of the state’s moose population. This creates a permanent headache for the management of the game. The solution over the last thirty years has been restrictions on antlers and hunts limited to cows. The strategy seems to be working quite well. Hunters have come to accept these solutions reluctantly.
Predator control has also become an accepted tool, but not overwhelmingly popular. We can kill bears and wolves in an effort to provide more moose for humans. We have no real idea of the long term effects of this. We can kill a lot of our “over fifty” moose, as well as a good number of yearling fork-tipped moose. We have no idea of the long term effects of this management tool either.
Common sense tells us that killing a large portion of our larger animals will ultimately impact that part of the gene pool. We don’t eat the woods, so does it really matter? Controlling predators is a whole different matter.
Wolves don’t just kill a moose and eat it. Their deaths and much of what they kill is used to feed other carnivores in the field. Foxes, wolverines, and crows all rely heavily on a healthy wolf population. Wolves take a cross section of moose available in a given area. In this, they can be beneficial to the overall health of a moose herd.
Bears are a different problem. The primary target for bears, whether black bears or grizzly bears, are calves. One of the main keys to successful moose recruitment is the survival of calves. Wolf control can and is carried out primarily from the air by private pilots under license. This will not happen with grizzly bears. Liberal spring bear hunts have not proven to be a solution to bear predation.
At this time, there does not appear to be a clear answer to the absolute health of our Alaskan moose population. I suspect there may never be. However, as hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, whether we choose to hunt or not, it is important to give our opinion on any ideas and potential responses we may have. Attend your local consultative meetings. Stop by Board of Game meetings and share your testimony. An honest and open discussion always has the best chance of success.
John Schandelmeier is a longtime Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay and has twice won the Yukon Quest.