Despite $1.3 million in state funding for a "rescue and relocation" program and an unprecedented permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Alaska Moose Federation didn't move a single moose last winter.
This month, the state gave the group another $1.5 million for the same program.
Now, the federation says it's gearing up to move up to "hundreds" of moose next winter, possibly flying drugged moose plucked from urban roadsides to remote village areas where moose populations are low.
Critics say the state is giving too much money and power to a private nonprofit whose methods are controversial.
"It gets crazier and crazier," said Rick Sinnott, a retired Fish and Game area wildlife biologist who has been critical of the moose federation's activities. "If Fish and Game were doing this they'd be the laughingstock of the scientific world."
The federation didn't move any moose this winter because of a problem scheduling training for federal Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services technicians contracted to move the moose, said Gary Olson, the executive director of the federation.
Fish and Game staffers who were supposed to train them never had time in their schedules, he said. A two-month permit to move the wild animals expired on March 31 before the technicians could be trained.
About half the initial grant, appropriated during the 2011 legislative session last spring, has been spent on equipment like specially outfitted trucks and trailers, Olson said. The grant can be used over multiple years.
The organization plans to use the new $1.5 million in funding to extend the program for up to five years, Olson said.
Both requests for state funds were championed by Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, he said.
McGuire said in an email Wednesday that she saw the program as a creative approach to making urban roadways safer and moose more abundant in rural areas.
"I hope to see the program yield more opportunities for subsistence harvest in and around rural communities," she wrote. "Ultimately, I see it as a bridge between urban and rural Alaska that will help support healthy communities in rural Alaska."
Hoffman was not available for comment Wednesday.
Next year, the moose federation wants to move 50 to 100 moose away from roadsides and to rural areas, Olson said.
Olson said the group also plans to approach Fish and Game with a proposal to use airplanes to fly moose to remote areas, like the Middle Kuskokwim and Fort Yukon areas, where low moose populations have led to few hunting opportunities for locals.
In September, the federation asked Fish and Game for permission to capture and transplant moose from the Tanana Flats area, near Fairbanks, to those areas as well. That effort has been abandoned in favor of focusing on urban-to-rural relocation, he said.
The group says its first priority is making roadways safer by moving moose away from places they could be hit by cars.
"If we can kick-start populations that are so depressed, that's an added benefit," he said.
If Olson gets the go-ahead to transport moose by airplane to villages, chances of success are low, Sinnott said.
Olson has often cited the Copper River Delta moose transplant, which introduced moose to that area in the 1950s, as an example of a successful, similar effort.
Those circumstances were ideal, Sinnott said: There were no moose there already, few if any wolves and excellent moose habitat.
Rank-and-file Fish and Game staffers, Sinnott said, are privately uneasy about the group's growing wildlife management role.
A call to Tony Kavalok of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation was not returned Wednesday.
The department, Sinnott said, granted the federation the relocation permit based on pressure from the highest levels of the agency.
"There doesn't seem to be much reliance on experts," he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.