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North Slope moose hunts axed with steep decline of numbers

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

As of last week, moose hunts on the North Slope were scaled back, or canceled altogether, for the fall and winter, due to a steep decline in population.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced drawing permits for moose in game management units 26A and 26B will not be issued, as the number of moose in the two North Slope regions dropped by 50 percent.

Hunters who had drawn permits will receive letters explaining the closure.

Further, the recently extended general season for subsistence hunters will be shortened by two weeks in 26A, said area biologist Geoff Carroll from Barrow last week, while the general hunt in 26B will be closed.

According to Fish and Game, part of the decline is a result of poor nutrition related to a late spring in 2013, and poor conditions during the following summer.

"These are the most northern moose in America, and they're way up on the ragged edge of habitable range," Carroll said.

In a good year, they have a very short window to feed on plants between green-up and freeze-up, but the winter is prolonged, it makes conditions even more challenging.

"On top of that, you've got a certain number of wolves and bears and so when you have a sudden drop in the population of moose for other reasons, all of a sudden the ratio of predators to moose changes," Carroll said.

"What we're doing now is trying to encourage more wolf and bear hunting in that area, while at the same time reducing the moose harvest."

All nonresident hunting has been axed, while locals will have a shortened season. The general season was extended by a 5-2 vote at a January Board of Game meeting, with the amendment that Fish and Game could cut back the number of days if the population dropped, which it did.

"The reason that the people of Nuiqsut requested the longer season was because of the warmer fall temperatures, which makes it harder to keep your meat in good shape," Carroll said.

"However, we need to cut back on harvesting. But they didn't really lose much, they just didn't gain that extra two weeks."

The scheduled winter hunt from mid-February to mid-April has also been canceled for 2015.

As with any animal, moose populations fluctuate from year to year. And when there is a decrease, and thus no excess for hunting, hunts are restricted, said Fairbanks Fish and Game biologist Cathie Harms.

"Populations of wildlife are never stable," Harms said. "Right now that population doesn't have a surplus and so we dramatically reduced hunting, and now we just have to wait and see what effect it has."

Harms noted most of the hunting is for bull moose, but a rebound on the population will depend on higher calf-survival rates.

This year, few 10-month-old calves were observed, signifying most of last year's young ones did not survive. Predation by wolves on weakened moose may have also contributed, according to a release from Fish and Game.

The North Slope moose population was stable through the '70s and '80s, Carroll said. In the early 1990s the population was up to just more than 1,500 moose. But the numbers took a nosedive shortly after and dropped to about 300.

"They clawed their way out and we had pretty steady growth and they got back up to about 1,200 by 2008," Carroll said.

The numbers dropped again and the population started to climb until last year.

"It looked like they were going to recover again but instead, this last year, we had another drop of about 50 percent."

Currently the population on the North Slope is at about 280-300 moose -- as low as the population has ever been, Carroll said.

With nonresident moose hunting opportunities closed on the North Slope, the general season for residents will be open in Unit 26A from Aug. 1 through Sept. 14.

Harms said she has heard from two hunters who drew permits to hunt moose up North, and while they were disappointed, they obviously understand the reasons for the closure.

"Hunters being the original conservationists anyway, don't want to hunt if the population can't stand a harvest," she said.

Hunters with questions about the hunt can call Fish and Game offices in Barrow or Fairbanks.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.


By JILLIAN ROGERS
Arctic Sounder