Moose-relocation program gets big boost from state

Group's founder emphasized the public safety role of its program.

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 10, 2012 

Gary Olson is executive director of the Alaska Moose Federation.

ERIK HILL / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Nearly a decade ago, Gary Olson presented a vision to the mailing list of his newly founded nonprofit, the Alaska Moose Federation, of an Alaska with moose in all the right places.

Writing in the first edition of the organization's newsletter, Olson conjured a world where he and the state would work together to move moose from one place to another to make more available to hunters, like a shepherd might carefully tend a herd to bring more animals to market.

"Imagine the AMF working with the Department of Fish and Game, taking a trailer full of our city moose and translocating them to Unit 13 (the Denali-to-Glennallen region). How about a 20' inch connex special-made container loaded with cows and calves moved out to McGrath?" Olson wrote. "This would go a long way towards healing the 'urban-rural' divide that others have created to pit Alaskans apart."

For years, Olson and his Alaska Moose Federation tried to get the state interested in his plan. Time and time again, his proposals were rebuffed by a Department of Fish and Game that did not warm to the idea of a private group with the motto "Grow More Moose" taking a hands-on role in managing wildlife.

But now, over the past year, Olson's efforts are finally paying off.

First, in 2011, the federation won $1.3 million in Alaska Legislature earmarks for a program to rescue and relocate orphaned moose calves. One of his legislative benefactors, Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Then in February, in a reversal of long-held policy, Fish and Game issued a permit to the federation allowing Olson's group to run a program to drug, capture and relocate calves and adult moose away from developed areas and into rural parts of Southcentral Alaska.

"We view it as an experiment," said Dale Rabe, deputy director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

Olson's idea would have had a familiar ring in some western states, where state agencies and guide and hunter organizations like Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife have transplanted elk, antelope, mule deer and other species to increase their abundance.

But in Alaska, such ideas have been mocked as "moose farming." They might have continued to languish but for a confluence of events that brought Olson together with the money and political will to do what he wanted: a successful re-framing of the moose-moving plan from a pet of hunting interests to a public safety imperative along with a supportive administration friendlier to private game management groups like the Moose Federation.

LONG ROAD

Olson's obsession with moose began as a child.

While walking to an Anchorage bus stop in the fourth grade, he was stomped by a moose that kicked him on both sides of his head and then went after his lunchbox.

As an adult, he pursued a career in construction management. But he never lost his focus on the gawky ungulates that dotted his hometown. It bothered him that advocacy groups seemed to exist for every Alaska species from sheep to eagles. Moose, it seemed to him, were visible on every calendar, piece of jewelry and magazine around but nobody seemed to be looking out for their welfare. He wanted to take on that task, though not to the extent of protecting moose from hunters. He is a hunter himself.

"Alaska Moose have been taken for granted long enough," he wrote in Volume 1 of the federation newsletter.

He began laying the groundwork for the moose relocation starting in 2004, when he convinced the Legislature to pass a "nuisance moose" law that would allow licensed groups to tranquilize and remove moose deemed a threat to human safety or industry to new rural homes.

But putting the idea into action hinged on Fish and Game approval since it's illegal for a private group to handle wildlife without a permit.

Fish and Game balked.

After another proposal in 2006, the Daily News reported that the then-commissioner of Fish and Game, McKie Campbell, wrote a "blistering" letter to Olson saying the organization hadn't proven it had the capability to safely move moose or comply with state and federal guidelines for the handling and care of wild animals. At the time, Olson was the federation's unpaid executive director and the organization had raised less than $25,000 annually over three years.

Things got more acrimonious between Fish and Game and the federation in 2007, when Matt Robus, the state's wildlife conservation director, accused the organization of breaking the law when it handled a moose calf in what was described as a rogue rescue attempt. No charges were brought.

But the Moose Federation's fortunes began to shift.

In 2009, Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Corey Rossi to a newly created Fish and Game job of assistant commissioner for abundance management. In 2010, Gov. Sean Parnell promoted him to wildlife conservation director. Rossi had ties to groups that argued for aggressive measures to enhance moose and caribou populations in the state, including aerial predator control, that many Fish and Game biologists had long opposed.

In the meantime, instead of talking about the need to move urban moose to rural areas to seed populations for hunting, Olson began to frame moose relocation as necessary for public safety, citing the number of fatal traffic accidents.

In March 2011, he testified before the House Transportation Committee in Juneau. According to a transcript, he talked about an Iraq war veteran, Spc. Steven "Max" Cavanaugh, who had survived 300 convoys in as a turret gunner at war only to be killed in a collision with a moose in Anchorage just two weeks before he was scheduled to be discharged.

Moose lingering by roadways would be better off -- and human lives spared -- if the animals were moved far from traffic and roads, he told the committee.

The federation, thanks to new leadership in the state and Fish and Game in particular, had "made more progress in the past six months than in the past six years," he told the committee.

In the meantime, the organization itself was undergoing major changes.

The Alaska Moose Federation's tax-exempt status as a nonprofit was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service in June 2011. The revocation, according to tax records, was because the organization did not file returns in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

For years, Olson said he tried to be "everything" to the nonprofit, from janitor to accountant. During that time, he took "bad advice" and didn't file proper tax records because he didn't think the group met the threshold for needing to.

"I'll be the first one to admit, that's not my speciality," he said.

In a January 2012 letter to the IRS asking for reinstatement of the group's exempt status under section 501(c)3 of the tax code, federation finance and administration director Ronald Davis wrote that the "AMF was founded on the spirited leadership of an individual who did not have the necessary skills to administrate and account business activities on a consistent basis."

In 2010, the federation began a "complete overhaul" to professionalize its operations, including removing Olson from the board and installing him as a paid director, Davis wrote. His yearly salary is $82,000.

"We shifted into a very professional format," Olson said.

According to documents filed with the IRS, the organization's board now includes the retired president of the Eyak Corp., Robert Henrichs; executives of GCI and Wendy's Alaska; a New York Life Insurance agent; and Davis, the executive director of the Tebughna Foundation, a Native nonprofit serving the village of Tyonek and its Native corporation.

The new role "freed (Olson) up from the activities he was not great at and allowed him to focus on moose, which eventually bore fruit with the attainment of state grants," Davis wrote in an email.

LEGISLATURE APPROVES

Olson requested a $1,441,500 state grant from the 2011 Legislature for money to "Rescue and Relocate Orphaned Moose Calves." Moose hit on roadways sometimes left orphans lingering near the road and confused, the organization wrote in its funding request. The calves were often hit as well. The program, according to the proposal submitted to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development by the federation, would "result in a solid decrease in vehicle collisions."

The grant was championed by McGuire and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. Neither senator returned calls for comment.

The Legislature approved $1.3 million of the requested money near the end of the 2011 session without a public comment process. Fish and Game's Rabe said that if the department was asked to weigh in on the grant, he wasn't aware of it.

The state grant to the federation specifies that the funds are for "calf rescue."

But the permit and the operations Olson describe include mature moose as well.

That was at the direction of Parnell, Olson said.

"Governor Parnell is the one who directed the work to include any moose in the known moose collision corridors," Olson wrote in an email.

Parnell was moved by the story of the Iraq veteran killed by a moose-vehicle collision, Olson said.

Sharon Leighow, Parnell's spokeswoman, said Thursday she will research whether the governor's office accepts Olson's characterization of the events but hadn't replied by Saturday afternoon.

The federation still needed to persuade Fish and Game to issue a permit. In fall 2011, flush with new state funds, Olson again proposed the relocation plan to Fish and Game.

This time the department said yes.

What was different?

"One of the biggest things that changed is that the Legislature funded the project," said Rabe. "Which sends a fairly definitive signal to the department."

Olson instead believes it was the department itself that changed.

"In my opinion, it is because of the new leadership of the Department of Fish and Game," Olson said in an email. More people in the department had experience in other states where relocation programs for moose, bison, sheep and other species are common and nonprofits are permitted to work alongside government agencies, he said.

That model is gaining traction in Alaska, he said.

The federation also offered to pay the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division to dart and supervise moving moose. That helped the organization's credibility, Rabe said, since the lack of technical expertise of federation volunteers had been a concern.

The USDA division hires itself to other government agencies and private groups, charging to recover costs, said the agency's regional supervisor, Ken Gruver.

Rossi, the former state wildlife director, worked there killing predators, vermin and pests before Palin picked him to manage game abundance. Gruver said Rossi hasn't worked there in three years.

Gruver's biologists use powerful tranquilizers to sedate the moose, load them into federation-owned trailers bought by the state grant and let the federation transport them, supervised, to their holding areas.

"We are not in the politics of it," Gruver said.

'YEARS IN THE FUTURE'

As the details of the program were being negotiated over the autumn and early winter of 2011, snow began to fall on a near-record course. Hundreds of moose were killed on Mat-Su highways. Olson's most dire predictions were coming true.

Fish and Game's Palmer offices started receiving hundreds of calls about troublesome or roadkill moose, Rabe said.

But Rabe said the severity of the winter and public outcry had nothing to do with the decision to allow the relocation program -- by then it had already been set in motion.

Fish and Game announced the permit in February. The initial scope of the program was small: Just 10 moose were likely to be moved in the first season, but there were no number limits in the terms of the permit.

According to grant progress reports filed with the state in February, the group has purchased welding machines, a 1998 Kenworth truck, a Skidoo snowmobile, a 2012 Ford F550, a 2012 Ford F450 and a modified horse trailer, among other expenditures, spending a total of $534,683.

Now, on the brink of seeing his vision fulfilled, Olson feels misunderstood.

He and his volunteers have given a lot of their lives to the plight of moose, he says. They often wake in the middle of the night to rush off to a salvage operation. And he's not becoming a rich man, he says. "I've built a lot of decks and sheds to provide for my family," said Olson, who has two daughters. Still, "constant critics" have accused the federation of being "Lower 48 redneck hunters who just want more moose to shoot," he said.

Yes, more moose to hunt is a good thing, Olson said. But his organization is working for both safety and abundance.

And they're just getting started, he said.

The federation believes that its Fish and Game permit will likely be renewed next year.

That's a fair assumption, Rabe said.

This year, the group plans to ask the Legislature for $14.5 million to expand and sustain statewide programs for five more years.

With trucks, trailers and cash and a go-ahead from the state, the groundwork has been laid for a much broader moose transplant program, Olson said.

"This will allow us to go for many, many years in the future," he said.

Which is what Olson envisioned all along.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

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