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Alaska wildlife experts uncertain about impact of massive Kenai fire on moose populations

Tegan Hanlon
The forest near Upper Killey River, a tributary of the Kenai River, smolders a day after the Funny River fire burned through the area, jumping the Kenai River. May 26, 2014. Loren Holmes photo

As the massive Funny River Horse Trail fire quieted inside the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this past week, discussions about how to best study the flames’ ecological effects sparked across state and federal agencies.

There is particular interest in what the fire may mean for moose -- an ungulate population that has shrunk in many parts of the Kenai Peninsula over the past decade, including inside the 2-million-acre refuge, said Sue Rodman, Alaska Department of Fish and Game program coordinator.

Representatives from Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuge tentatively agreed in a conference call Thursday to partner, pool their resources and begin gathering data in 2015 on moose and a slew of other effects on the ecosystem. Some agencies may lay groundwork earlier, Rodman said.

When it comes to the Kenai Peninsula moose count, Jeff Selinger, an area wildlife biologist, said the confluence of a mature habitat and moose predators, like bear and wolves, triggered the decline. The “Kenai Peninsula Moose News” published online by Fish and Game for the winter of 2013-14 also cited roadkill and hunting.

In theory, the Funny River fire could help moose populations because it burned beetle-kill spruce and thickets of tall aspen, making way for new growth that would be a food source. But wildlife officials worry the wind-driven fire may have burned too early and too fast to prompt regeneration.

“We’ve heard a lot of, ‘Oh, this is going to be good for moose,’” said Lisa Saperstein, regional fire ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That’s not necessarily a given.”

Generally, moose like hardwood species, typically birch, willow and aspen, which need mineral soil to germinate. Mineral soil hides underneath the forest’s “litter layer” of leaves and needles; moss, grass and lichen, and also below the “organic layer” where decomposition begins.

“That organic layer needs to be fully consumed by fire in order to expose what’s below it which is called mineral soil,” Rodman said.

Although the fire burned hot, consumed trees and vegetation, it didn’t burn very deep. Some firefighters reported that the soil remained frozen just a few inches down, not reaching the mineral soil, Rodman said.

By Tuesday, the fire area encompassed nearly 195,860 acres, almost all forested land inside the refuge. Crews conducting flyovers had not seen any smoke since Friday. The number of personnel assigned to the fire dropped from more than 700 at its peak to 28, said Terry Anderson, fire information officer.

Anderson described the burn scar as “mosaic.”

“It’s not just one big black spot,” he said. “It burned in some places very intensely where there were pockets of black spruces, there’s nothing left. Now there are other places though, through the hardwood patches, where it’s just a surface fire and a lot of the hardwood is still intact.”

Much of the hardwood that survived the fire has grown too tall for moose browse. It’s been decades since wildfires burned large swaths of the refuge and kickstarted new growth.

Selinger said that it usually takes a few years for the hardwood species to grow after a fire. Within about 25 years it outgrows its role as suitable moose habitat.

Doug Newbould, fire management officer for the refuge, said he'd like to withhold predictions for a few years on how the Funny River fire may change the 10 percent of the refuge that it burned.

“Early season fires are typically not that good for moose browse production,” he said. Though, he added, “The jury is still out.”

Contact Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com.