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Alaska Moose Federation racks up state subsidies

Rick Sinnott
A bull moose feeding on the outskirts of Anchorage in fall 2012. Loren Holmes photo

What if a traveling salesman knocked on your door, talked you into buying a vacuum cleaner, and then never delivered it? Would you purchase another one from him next year? Would you even let him back into your home?

By all accounts, Gary Olson is a fantastic salesman. Olson is the executive director of the Alaska Moose Federation (AMF), a private nonprofit whose slogan is "Grow More Moose." He's turned a feel-good idea -- rescuing orphaned moose calves -- into a multimillion-dollar business.

Unfortunately, the money was ours and we've yet to see the vacuum cleaner.

Olson's pitch

Not one to put all his eggs in one basket, Olson has diversified his funding requests. This year he submitted three grant requests: $300,000 to rescue moose calves, $400,000 to salvage road-killed moose, and $1.5 million to enhance moose habitat.

In fiscal year 2012, the Alaska Legislature gave the Moose Federation $1.3 million -- plus another $500,000 the following year -- to rescue and relocate orphaned calves. Olson has asked the Legislature for $300,000 this year.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, have sponsored at least some of the legislative grants to the Moose Federation. That's not surprising when you know that both senators are on the federation's advisory board. Other state senators on the advisory board include Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, Senate Majority leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River. There's no telling how many other legislators are Moose Federation members.

Olson's pitch is that hundreds of moose calves are orphaned every summer when vehicles kill cow moose in Anchorage. He bases his estimate on fuzzy logic. I've previously explained how the actual number of orphaned calves, albeit unknown, is certainly much less. There is increasing evidence I'm right.

Beginning in spring 2010, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began giving the Moose Federation every orphaned calf reported by the public that couldn't be adopted by an approved zoological facility like the Alaska Zoo. Calves were rounded up from the Mat-Su Valley and Kenai Peninsula in addition to Anchorage.  Since 2011 the calves have been reared at the Moose Federation facility in the Point MacKenzie area. In 2010 the Moose Federation was given eight calves, but seven of them died, and only one was released that fall. In 2011, the Moose Federation was given 11 calves; four survived to be released. Last summer only one orphaned moose calf was captured in Southcentral Alaska. It was released last fall, but didn't survive the winter, according to Fish and Game.

One reason why some moose experts are skeptical of the Moose Federation's helter-skelter "rescue-and-release" program is infectious disease. When the Alaska Zoo and other approved zoological parks obtain moose calves from the state, they are not allowed to release the moose. Releasing captive moose is a good way to spread disease among wild populations.

But back to Olson's pitch. If hundreds of moose calves are orphaned in Anchorage every summer, why has the federation only received 20 calves in three summers? The simple answer is that Olson has overhyped the issue to make a bigger sale.

How much is a moose worth?

You probably noticed that only six of the 20 calves given to the Moose Federation in the past three years were released in fall, several months after they were picked up. Calves are sometimes injured or nutritionally weakened when they are orphaned and end up being euthanized. Moose Federation handlers also accidentally killed two or three calves in 2010 through the use of unauthorized formula and poor care.

Rehabilitated calves are released at approximately five months of age. By late September or October calves weigh 300-350 pounds and are capable of surviving alone, although they are less likely to survive their first year than calves accompanied by a cow. Winter is the worst time to be a moose. At least one of the six released calves died within a few months of release. The five other rehabilitated calves lived longer, but their collars are designed to drop off in less than a year, so the fates of these calves are unknown.

While surviving its first winter is a momentous milestone for an orphaned calf, it doesn't justify the Moose Federation's rescue program. If their goal is to "grow more moose" for hunting or any other reason, the orphans must live long enough to reproduce. Moose are highly unlikely to breed until they are 18 months old, and it takes another year before they become proficient.

It's unlikely that all five calves the Moose Federation has raised and released since 2010 survived long enough to reproduce. But assuming they did, each one cost the state $360,000. That's the best-case scenario. My professional judgment and a well-honed streak of skepticism leads me to believe perhaps only two of those calves survived, which means some lucky hunter might harvest a $900,000 moose someday.

But I could be wrong. Maybe none of Moose Federation calves survived as long as two years. Maybe our legislature keeps paying for a vacuum cleaner that will never be delivered.

Blaming everyone

Keeping five calves, at best, alive through their first winter isn't a notable success given what was spent. But last winter the Moose Federation demonstrated even less competence when it obtained a permit to capture 50 adult moose from the road system and relocate them to more remote areas. Not one moose was relocated. The Moose Federation blamed everyone but themselves.

Ideally, one consequence of failing to perform a task should be returning the unspent money. Instead, the moose foundation has transferred unspent state funding into The Moose Stewardship Endowment, which is managed by the Moose Federation, of course. Now they can spend that money on anything they want.

To be fair, some of the $300,000 the Moose Federation is asking for this year is supposed to be used to create diversionary trails from roads "in areas with high snow levels." Of course, if next winter is anything like this winter, high snow levels may be harder to find than orphaned moose calves.

But wait ... there's more!

Instead of growing more moose, what Olson does best is grow funding. In addition to the $1.8 million he's collected from the state for rescuing moose calves, the Moose Federation has received $674,000 for salvaging dead moose off roads, and is asking the legislature for another $400,000 for that project this year. The federation is also requesting $1.5 million to enhance moose habitat.

I haven't looked into these programs with the detail I've lavished on the orphaned-calf program. But in 2012, the federation salvaged more than 400 moose, according to the organization's records. Previously, moose killed by vehicles were salvaged for human consumption for free by volunteers. However, enforcement officers spent considerable time on scene waiting for an individual or charity to arrive and fretted that untrained volunteers were a potential hazard to other motorists.

As part of his salvage effort, Olson has accumulated at least a dozen trucks, according to a recent presentation by the federation, various livestock trailers, and a fleet of tracked vehicles for creating diversionary trails in deep snow. Now Olson is claiming that he will spend $900,000 of the $1.5 million he seeks for habitat enhancement on heavy equipment. It's unclear to me what happens to this equipment if the state ceases to pay.

Holding the bag

If it seems as if the Moose Federation is buying a lot of equipment and doing a lot of work with state funding that you might expect would be better accomplished by experts in the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, you're not alone. Some state wildlife officials have come to the same conclusion.

If the funding spent on "rescuing" fewer than a handful of moose calves had been spent on restoring moose habitat, we really would be growing more moose.

Such conservation organizations as Ducks Unlimited and the Ruffed Grouse Society raise millions of dollars annually in private donations and fundraisers. They partner with state and federal wildlife agencies to conserve wildlife habitat using mostly private funds. Olson has a different business model. He envisions a project -- often one unbeknownst to or opposed by state wildlife officials -- then obtains most of his money from the Alaska Legislature.

If Olson secures all of the state grants he's applied for this year -- and past performance suggests that's a relatively safe bet -- the Moose Federation will have scored an average haul of $1.6 million per year during the past three legislative sessions. Division of Wildlife Conservation budgets are much higher than that, but most of the agency's funding comes from federal taxes on sporting equipment, primarily guns and ammunition, and the sale of hunting licenses and permits. In other words, the division is largely funded through sources dedicated to state wildlife programs by law or prior agreement, not special appropriations.

There's no question that the state's wildlife agency has more responsibility and expertise that the Moose Federation. The Division of Wildlife Conservation manages or co-manages all wildlife in the state; the Moose Federation moves moose, dead or alive.

Yet, the Moose Federation is sucking up a sizeable share of state funding that would be better spent by the Division of Wildlife Conservation, or any number of other worthy causes. In fiscal 2011 and 2012 the state's official wildlife agency averaged about $6 million in legislative grants. The Legislature appears to be giving the Moose Federation -- which is comprised of an executive director, several paid consultants, and a whole lot of dedicated volunteers -- about a quarter of that amount.

Some legislators can't seem to resist funding the Moose Federation despite its poor performance, making down payments on shiny new vacuum cleaners, leaving the rest of us holding the bag.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com