This winter will likely be remembered as a pretty bad one for Mat-Su moose.
Struggling with deep snow, the animals are starving and getting hit in such high numbers that the state of Alaska has taken the unprecedented step of allowing a private group to feed them in an effort to keep them away from roads.
The Alaska Moose Federation, a private nonprofit that operates under a "grow more moose" philosophy, finished the second of 20 planned feeding stations on Sunday between Big Lake and Willow near Houston.
The group hopes to create a connected trail of "diversionary" feeding stations well away from rail and road corridors.
The federation uses heavy equipment purchased with state grant money to groom rink-sized areas. Five-hundred-pound bales of fermented grasses grown at Point MacKenzie are trucked in. The grasses, unlike hay, are thought to be digestible by moose, which are usually twig and bark eaters. Then volunteers use snowcats to move the bales, six at a time, to the feeding areas, where they are spread so moose won't crowd one another.
Volunteers plan to check the sites weekly. They say each of the 20 planned sites scattered throughout the Matanuska and Susitna valleys will require 50 bales of haylage to last the winter. The group is "scraping and hustling" to raise money to buy more diesel fuel and feed, said Gary Olson of the federation.
The program has critics. Skeptics in the Department of Fish and Game worry that allowing a private group to feed moose sends mixed messages to the public about feeding wildlife, which the state discourages, said Tony Kavalok of the department.
Ultimately, he said, Fish and Game officials decided the move was necessary because of the risk to public safety posed by so many moose along the highways.
At last count, 420 moose have been hit by vehicles in the Mat-Su so far this winter, according to the state Department of Transportation.
The Palmer Fish and Game office has received hundreds of moose-related calls in past weeks, he said.
"The public asked us to do this," he said.
The department has stressed that the feeding is diversionary rather than supplemental, meaning moose aren't being fed to keep them from starving but to lure them away from roadsides. It remains illegal for anyone to feed moose without a permit.
Because of the "unusually high death rate" for moose in the region, Fish and Game canceled planned antlerless hunts for fall 2012 in Game Management Unit 14A, which covers an area of Mat-Su that includes Big Lake, Houston and Willow.
"We're receiving a lot of reports of moose dying from starvation," said Tim Peltier, the acting area biologist in Palmer. "We have cancel
ed the hunts because we don't know how bad this winter will be for the moose population, and we don't want to exacerbate the situation."
But some residents think there were too many moose in the Mat-Su region to begin with.
Under state law, moose are managed by the state for "abundance" as hunting and food resources. The moose population in the valleys has been "well above population objectives," which is why the antlerless hunt was planned, according to Fish and Game.
Before this winter, the population stood at about 7,500 animals.
"The feeling now is the population has outrun the carrying capacity of the land," said Nick Cassara, a state wildlife technician in the Palmer office.
Olson, from the moose federation, said it isn't a matter of too many moose for the land, but too many moose trying to live in the wrong places.
"Unfortunately, with some of the best moose habitat being in DOT right-of-ways," he said. "It's a moose buffet along the side of the roads."
No matter how many moose there are, no one wants to see them hit and killed by cars, he said. In an effort to change that, his organization has asked the Legislature for money to improve habitat away from roads.
By the end of the winter, the population is expected to fall "within or below" target numbers of about 5,000 moose.
One prominent former wildlife manager says the group shouldn't be allowed to feed the moose. Retired state biologist Rick Sinnott said that when feeding has come up in the past, department biologists have "fought and kicked not to do it."
Whenever humans interact closely with moose there's a risk of transmitting a communicable disease, such as chronic wasting disease, to moose.
Sinnott said he believes the department is prioritizing public sentiment and hunting interests over science. Allowing the moose federation to feed this year may open the door to more private involvement in the future, he said.
"At some point the government will fold and say, 'Yeah, we'll go ahead and let you do this.' "
Other than diversionary feeding, the Alaska Moose Federation operates a program to salvage the meat of road-killed moose. Funded by a $700,000 state grant, volunteers pick up carcasses at all hours of the day and deliver them to charities that distribute the meat. In the past, the group has attracted controversy for proposals to relocate urban moose to remote areas where their numbers were low and to rescue and raise orphaned moose calves. Both proposals were initially denied. Last summer, Fish and Game began allowing the Moose Federation to raise orphaned moose calves and release them into the wild.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.