Wolves not key to declining number of Kenai moose; habitat change is

commentFebruary 17, 2012 

Tree crusher on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, early 1980s.


In an effort to enhance the moose population for sport hunters, the Board of Game has authorized killing wolves from helicopters on the Kenai Peninsula. It's a temporary measure that will have little long-term effect other than a lot of dead wolves.

For a century the moose population on the Kenai Peninsula has been artificially high. Dena'ina oral tradition tells of moose dramatically expanding on the Kenai Peninsula in the late 1800s. Previously the primary ungulate on the Peninsula was caribou. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of large fires changed much of the habitat from caribou-friendly ground and tree lichen to moose-friendly aspen, willow and scrub birch browse. Some of the fires were natural, associated with bark beetle infestation cycles, and some were set by miners clearing ground for turn-of-the-century mining. Hugh Bennett wrote that in 1916 his party rarely traveled more than two miles without encountering a burned area. Historic photos show hundreds of acres burned by placer miners.

Consequently, in the early part of the 20th century, willow, aspen and birch grew up where the mature spruce forests had burned. The last reported caribou was sighted on the Kenai Peninsula in 1917. (The modern caribou are transplants.) Because of the newly luxuriant habitat, moose thrived, growing large in numbers and in size. Eastern and European sport hunters discovered the giant Kenai moose and trophy hunting became a minor industry in the early 20th century. Word spread largely through magazine articles with accompanying trophy photographs of a hunter with a huge moose rack, some in excess of 70 inches. The wealthy sport hunters had influence and lobbied for creation of a sport-hunting reserve and in 1941 Congress created the Kenai National Moose Range (now Kenai National Wildlife Refuge).

Moose habitat was also artificially enhanced by post-World War II homestead clearings, most of which generally lay fallow after "prove up." By 1955 there were 851 homesteads totaling 110,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula and there was more to come in the next decade. In the early 1970s it was common to see 10 to 12 moose browsing on scrub birch in an old homestead clearing.

As time went by, three things happened to shrink the artificially enhanced moose habitat. First, forest fires were suppressed initially both in the populated areas and in the Moose Range. That policy has changed for the refuge, which now usually lets fires burn. Second, homesteads gave way to subdivisions and where once there was browse, now there are houses and lawns. And third, natural plant succession took place and where once there was prime moose habitat, now there is spruce or tall birch. Moose don't eat spruce or what they can't reach.

The Moose Range tried to stem the natural vegetation succession to keep the moose population high, using such methods as crushing trees with huge track vehicles, flattening thousands of acres to enhance moose habitat. But, in the end, mature forests have emerged and the moose population is in decline.

Today, no matter how many wolves are killed, the moose population will never be high enough to satisfy the number of hunters. The moose population is about half of what it was in 1980 (2,000 today in Game Unit 15a). The Kenai Peninsula Borough population is double what it was in 1980 (55,000 today). The nearby Municipality of Anchorage is 280,000, a hundred thousand more than it was in 1980. According to ADF&G, about 14 percent of Alaskans hunt; not all, of course, hunt moose but people don't invest in .30-06's and four-wheelers to hunt rabbits.

That means there are approximately 7,700 hunters on the Kenai Peninsula, more than double the hunters in 1980 (47,000 if you include Anchorage, also double). Hunters now harvest about 400 moose per year. Inflate the moose population, double it, triple it and still only a small percentage of hunters will get their moose. Supply will never meet demand and it will get worse as Alaska's urban population continues to grow.

So now the wolves must die so a few more moose will be temporarily available for hunters. In the long run there are too many hunters for the number of moose the Kenai Peninsula can support. Only drastic denuding of thousands of acres of spruce forest will create enough habitat to return the moose population to its artificially inflated levels to satisfy hunter demand.

The Board of Game should stop the Kenai Peninsula wolf kill program and let nature adjust to a natural regimen.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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