What comes to mind when you see these words: Orphaned Moose Guardians. Do you envision caped crusaders flexing muscles in colorful Spandex unitards?
I see a petite Asian woman feeding moose calves from a bottle. It would be touching if it weren’t so wrong. It’s wrong because of the harm it could do to wild moose populations in Alaska. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
The mysterious 'F'
I was cruising the Internet the other night looking at moose pictures when I saw a photo of an Asian woman feeding a moose calf. Its link led me to a diary written by a woman identified only as “F.” Her face was masked by deliberate pixelation.
Not many people post photos of themselves feeding moose calves. A black geotextile fabric in the background suggested that “F” might have been feeding the calves at the Alaska Moose Federation’s facility in the Point MacKenzie area, across the Knik Arm from Anchorage.
Other photos in “F’s” diary were shot from the Glenn Highway and at the moose facility. “F” had visited the facility on June 18, 2011, with someone else. She had pixelated his face as well, attempting to obscure it. Why all the mystery?
The text of the diary was equally obscure. Except for an occasional word in English, it was written in Japanese script. It was also peppered with oodles of emoticons: bouncy exclamation points, pink music notes, giggly smiley faces, blinking hearts, smiley faces with eyes replaced by winking red hearts, and so on. My first hurdle, after suppressing my gag reflex, was translating the diary.
I tried several free Internet translators, including the one provided by Google. It quickly became evident that, unlike some foreign languages, Japanese is not easily twisted into a grammatical structure that is comprehensible to an English reader. You are obviously someone who can read English. Does the following statement make much sense to you?
“In this case, the fit, such as traffic accidents and, in the swamp. The rescue of the moose children who lost their parents, we have to take care.”
I didn’t think so.
Photos don’t need translating
Fortunately, the photos were more plainspoken than Google’s insensate translator. Mostly they showed adorable moose calves inside a large enclosure. The state gave the moose federation 11 calves in 2011; however, only seven calves should have been in the facility on June 18. Based on the photos, “F” approached at least five calves inside the pens and bottle-fed at least one.
“F’s” companion’s face wasn’t completely obscured. He was tentatively identified as Jim Gittleson, a former finance director for the Native Village of Eyak, from Cordova. I soon found some of the same photos of moose calves -- but not those including him and his wife, Futaba -- on Gittleson’s Facebook page.
“F” wrapped up her diary entry with an appeal to her Japanese audience to donate to the Alaska Moose Federation: “We accept Donations, more than welcome! ~ You thank you!” Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirmed that the moose pens in the photos were constructed and managed by the private non-profit organization in 2011.
If “F” or Gittleson were carrying any number of diseases that can be transmitted to moose, then it’s likely that all seven of the calves were exposed.
No public visitation permitted
Private organizations such as the moose federation are required to obtain a state permit to raise orphaned moose calves. Because the intent is to release the calves into the wild in the fall, permit conditions require minimal human contact. Calves that are handled by people become imprinted and tend to gravitate toward human habitation when they are released. They can become nuisances, attacking dogs and charging kids. Participant guidelines stipulate that calves “are not to be considered pets and should not be exhibited or in contact with individuals not directly responsible for their care.”
But the chief reason human contact is supposed to be minimized is to avoid exposing the calves to infectious diseases and parasites. Some human diseases can be transmitted directly to moose, and humans can transmit disease from livestock or pets to captive calves via their hands and clothes.
The permit guidelines were dead serious about “no public visitation is permitted.” They also stipulated that “Permitted facilities that allow any visitation or excessive human contact that results in imprinting may have permits revoked and future applications denied.”
Infecting captive moose calves one caress at a time
The Alaska Moose Federation wants to use orphaned calves from urban areas to augment moose populations in rural areas. But this scheme will be counterproductive if the orphaned calves -- which tend to have much more contact with humans, pets, and livestock than rural moose -- transmit diseases to wild populations.
To avoid spreading infectious diseases, the pens were designed to minimize contact along the fence line with other animals and people (hence the black geotextile fabric screening), and visitors were not to be allowed in the pens. Authorized caretakers were required to use a disinfection footbath or designated rubber boots or boot covers for use in each enclosure. If physical contact with the calf was necessary, coveralls unique to the enclosure were to be used. Disposable gloves or rubber gloves unique to each enclosure were to be worn when handling, cleaning, or feeding quarantined animals. These caveats were all clearly spelled out in the permit guidelines.
Gittleson and his wife were not caretakers, they were visitors. Even if the intent of the visit was for Gittleson to familiarize himself with the facility so that he could supervise construction of similar holding pens in Cordova, he didn’t have to pet the calves and his wife didn’t have to spread her germs around the facility as well. “F’s” photos show both visitors wearing street shoes in the pens. They didn’t don special coveralls or rubber gloves before petting and feeding the calves.
Of the seven calves that were at the facility on June 18, three had been there less than the two-week quarantine period. The cavalier manner in which the permit conditions were adhered to may have been the reason why the facility was moved the following year. Some infectious diseases are not easily controlled once they’ve been let loose in a captive environment.
Olson just doesn’t get it
In 2005, when Fish and Game’s veterinarian, Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen believed she had identified a new disease in Alaska moose, similar to adenovirus-induced hemorrhagic disease in deer, the ramifications were clear. Anyone proposing to transplant moose from urban to rural areas would face serious hurdles intended to avoid spreading the disease. Gary Olson, the executive director of the Alaska Moose Federation who was instrumental in passing the “nuisance moose” law that allowed private parties to relocate urban moose, had yet to obtain his first permit to do so. However, according to the reporter, he “was not overly concerned by the news.”
“They would be under strict quarantine,” Olson replied.
In October 2011 I was sitting in a studio of KOAN FOX News Talk radio waiting to be interviewed by Tom Anderson, a former state representative. Anderson whipped out his smart phone and dialed up a photo of himself, his father, and another visitor in a pen surrounded by seven or eight moose calves.
Anderson said Olson had invited them to visit the pens to “feed and pet” the calves. Judging from the size of the calves, this was in late June or July. Anderson’s father is Col. Tom R. Anderson, a former director of the Alaska State Troopers. Hovering in the background was Gary Olson. Everyone, including Olson, was in street clothes.
Anderson didn’t seem to realize he was showing me Exhibit A, incontrovertible evidence of a violation of the permit that allowed the AMF to rear orphaned moose calves. Olson knew he was violating his permit conditions. But he was trying to convince the state troopers to support one of his proposals for state funding, and obtaining the support of Col. Anderson was a logical step.
Were “F” and Anderson and their companions the only ones to visit the AMF facility in 2011? I seriously doubt it. “F’s” diary contained a cryptic, but potentially relevant complaint: “Somehow, it is so busy as there are also other Visiters [sic].”
It is difficult to convey how serious moose experts are about avoiding the spread of new diseases in moose country. Dr. Beckmen, the Fish and Game veterinarian, was severely disciplined and nearly lost her job after expressing dismay at how poorly calves were cared for by the AMF in 2010.
The slipshod manner in which the AMF cared for calves in 2010 and 2011 exposed a fatal flaw in the scheme to privatize moose management in Alaska.
OMG, another moose rescue group
Another moose photo on the Internet led me to the website of the Orphaned Moose Guardians. OMG appears to be an offshoot of the AMF with the same desire to augment rural moose populations using orphaned calves from urban areas.
OMG claims to be a “cooperative effort of the Alaska Moose Federation, Eyak Corporation, and the Native Village of Eyak.” In fact, it may be hard to pry them apart. Gittleson worked for the Native Village of Eyak, which secured a Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for building the OMG moose pens. Robert “Moose” Henrichs, a former president of the Eyak Village and Eyak Corporation, is the current chairman of the AMF. Eyak Village’s Facebook page provides a link to the next AMF fundraiser.
Following the AMF’s lead, the moose guardians built a facility near Cordova in 2011 to “house and rear moose calves orphaned primarily due to traffic accidents within the Anchorage valley area.” OMG sought to “improve the biological fitness of our moose herd by diversifying the genetic pool.”
Lacking any moose expertise, OMG hasn’t questioned the talking points produced by the AMF. For example, an OMG funding proposal submitted to the U.S. Forest Service referenced the AMF claim that “around 150 calves per year are orphaned in Anchorage and the surrounding areas, and most of these are euthanized because of the lack of suitable facilities.” The AMF has yet to prove this claim. Instead of “rescuing” 150 orphaned calves annually from the Anchorage area, they’ve obtained only 20 from Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and the Kenai Peninsula in the past three summers and released six calves, none of them in targeted rural areas.
Copper River Delta moose
And there’s another flaw in the moose guardians’ plan. The Copper River Delta doesn’t need any more moose. According to Dave Crowley, the former Cordova area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the moose population is at or near carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is a moving target and difficult to quantify, but wildlife managers use the term to describe populations of animals fluctuating near the limit the habitat can support. “We heavily harvest moose to keep the population under control in (Unit) 6C,” Crowley said.
It wasn’t always that way. Between 1949 and 1958 about 25 moose calves from Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and the Kenai Peninsula were transplanted to the Copper River Delta, which had no moose at the time. These calves were not all orphans; some were taken from cows for the transplant. This was the first and most successful moose translocation in Alaska. Most of the other attempts have failed. But on the Copper River Delta, which initially had relatively few moose predators and moose browse as far as the eye could see, some of the calves survived and reproduced. By 1960 the moose population was supporting hunts.
One niggling problem remained. Because the population was founded by so few individuals, an unsuspected, probably genetic defect was magnified and has become widespread. The ailment, which may affect as many as 40 percent of the bulls, is known as “peculiar antler cast.” When afflicted bulls drop their antlers after the rutting season a chunk of bone that normally remains attached to the skull is shed with the antlers. This can leave a one-to-three-inch hole in the skull until it heals up.
According to Crowley, peculiar antler cast appears to have “little effect on bull numbers.” However, the holes can cause deformed or otherwise odd-looking antlers the following year. This is the problem that the moose guardians and Eyak Village hope to address by relocating moose calves from the Anchorage area to the Copper River Delta. They aren’t trying to introduce or even “augment” a moose population, they want to produce more trophy bulls.
Crowley is not convinced that “dribbling” a few moose calves into the population will be enough to rectify the problem. However, he was willing to look into it.
More funding requests
At least the OMG doesn’t seem to have competed with the AMF for millions of dollars in funding from the Alaska Legislature. Instead, they have set their sights on funding sources provided by federal agencies.
In October 2010 the Eyak Village requested $299,834 from the U.S. Forest Service to build a calf-rearing facility near Cordova. Gittleson submitted another proposal for the Eyak Village in 2011 for $98,000 to assist with calf transportation, rearing, release and monitoring. In both instances, the funding was earmarked for the Secure Rural Schools program, which aims to “provide funding for schools and roads, make additional investments in projects that enhance forest ecosystems, and improve cooperative relationships.” Neither request was approved.
However, in 2011 Eyak Village received a Tribal Wildlife Grant for $199,997 -- three dollars less than the maximum allowed --from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for building a calf-rearing facility for the moose guardians. The facility was built the week following Gittleson’s visit to the AMF facility.
Eyak Village was subsequently unable to obtain a calf-rearing permit from Fish and Game; however, plans are afoot to use some of the funding for transporting, releasing, and monitoring orphaned calves from other areas. The FWS is considering allowing them to redirect the remainder of the grant to investigate the genetics of the local moose herd. Eyak Village hopes that baseline data on moose genetics will help them know when they’ve fixed the antler problem.
The leaders of the effort to privatize moose management, such as Olson and Henrichs, have heaped criticism -- behind closed doors and in op-ed pieces -- on Fish and Game for not flying moose willy-nilly all over the state. “Moose” Henrichs likes to brag about his father’s involvement in the original moose transplants to the Copper River Delta. But the gilded age of moose transplants doesn’t shine quite as brightly when you realize that most calves didn’t survive to be released and most transplant attempts were utter failures.
Professional wildlife managers have mostly gotten over last century’s manic urge to transplant game animals to new areas with no concern for environmental consequences.
Undeterred by conventional wisdom, the OMG is planning to release five calves onto the Copper River Delta this week. The calves are coming from the AMF facility. All but one, which was originally from the Cordova area, were born in southcentral Alaska. John Whissel, a biologist with Eyak Village, doesn’t believe these five calves will solve the problem, but he called them “the thin edge of the wedge.” He hopes to release five or 10 calves a year for a decade or more, if that’s what it takes to diversify the local gene pool. It could take considerably more, especially if bears and wolves eat most of the released orphans before they are old enough to breed.
There is an element of risk in relocating moose calves to wild areas where they might introduce diseases that would reduce local moose numbers. The risk is compounded by the AMF’s chronic unwillingness to abide by its permit conditions. Every year the state gives moose calves to the moose federation, despite the organization’s poor track record. Now the OMG wants calves too. Do we really need another group of enthusiastic amateurs performing the role of the state’s official wildlife agency?
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