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Feeding Alaska Moose: Public safety policy or something else?

Craig Medred
National Park Service photo

Coming soon to a movie theater near you: "The Big Miracle, Part Deux," starring the Alaska Moose Federation in the role of Greenpeace, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a stand in for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In this remake of the film about the famous Barrow whale rescue now drawing movie viewers to theaters all across the country, the Moose Federation tries to lead moose away from snow-choked Alaska roads and railroads -- where cars and trains threaten them -- much like the whales trapped in breathing holes near shore in the Arctic ice were led away into miles and miles of ice never to be seen again.

None of the authorities on gray whales believed the big marine animals had any chance of surviving, but the whale "rescue" drew wide national attention and helped raise funds for the international environmental organization Greenpeace. Now, the Alaska Moose Federation, an Anchorage-based environmental organization, is hoping for a similar fundraising boost. Federation director Gary Olson told the Associated Press the organization has already received a $50,000 gift from Allstate Insurance Co. to help deal with what has been billed as a "moose emergency" in the 49th state.

The Los Angeles Times quoted the local "wildlife advocate" as warning that "the (moose) calves are the worst off. We've gotten reports of calves that have just given up, and the ravens are already picking at them, and they're still alive."

The claim could not be verified. Olson did not return phone calls. Susitna Valley area wildlife biologist Tim Peltier said he hasn't heard of any situations as dire as calves being eaten alive by scavenging birds. But moose in his corner of Alaska clearly are struggling because of deep snow. The snow pushes them onto roadways where they are especially vulnerable to inattentive drivers and makes it increasingly difficult for the animals to find or reach food.

A bona fide 'moose emergency'

The Moose Federation moved to try and head off the carnage back in January when it quietly asked the state Board of Game for permission to begin supplemental feeding of moose. That was followed by a public plea for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to declare a "moose emergency" because the animals were floundering in the snow.

Since then, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has issued the federation a permit to feed moose, and national media has picked up on the rescue theme.

"How to save a moose" is the way the Charleston Gazette headlined the story, although state Fish and Game officials haven't quite bought into the "save the moose" idea the way NOAA officials did with the whales in 1988. The federal agency continues to cling to the idea the whales could have survived, maybe.

It's nice to believe in miracles.

State wildlife biologists, however, appear to be realists. What is happening in the 49th state now "is not about saving moose," Tony Kavalok, assistant director of wildlife for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Wednesday, "It has nothing to do with saving moose. It's about public safety."

Parnell, Kavalok said, "has made moose collisions a big deal. It's a big issue for the administration."

Kavalok noted that the Wasilla area of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough at the moment has the state's biggest moose problem. There are just too many of them. The population goal for the area is 6,500, he said. There are now about 8,000 moose there. Heavy snows have pushed many of them out of favored feeding areas into developed areas where they can move about more easily thanks to roads, railroads and trails.

This leads to inevitable problems: costly and sometimes deadly collisions between motor vehicles and people, along with dangerous encounters between humans and hungry, ill-tempered moose. About 300 moose have been killed in collisions with cars in the Mat-Su already this winter with damage costs climbing into the millions.

Wildlife bait and switch

Ill-tempered moose have stomped to death at least two people in Anchorage over the years, too. One of the deaths was captured on videotape.

There isn't a lot the state can do about aggressive moose, although state biologists and local police every winter shoot any number that have lost their natural fear of humans.

Kavalok, however, believes there might be something the state can do -- with the help from the Moose Federation -- to limit the number of collisions between moose and motor vehicles. That, he said, is why the state agency granted the federation a feeding permit. He discounted the idea there was or is any grand plan to feed moose, or any undue political influence involved in the decision.

"We've been asked to do a job just like we've been asked to do any job," Kavalok said. The job, he went on to say, is to try to cut down on moose-motor vehicle collisions. In line with that goal, the Moose Federation was given a permit not so much to feed wildlife as to bait wildlife, he said.

The idea is that Moose Federation volunteers can build trails to allow moose to get away from busy roads, and then seed those trails with "haylage" to lure moose down them. Think Hansel and Gretel and the trail of bread crumbs and you'll get the picture. The thought is the moose can be encouraged to move from "haylage" pile to "haylage" pile until they're well away from roads.

All of this is not totally farfetched. Everyone agrees moose can be baited. Of all the deer, "they definitely are the easiest to train," added Peter Pekins, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and the chief editor of "Alces," a journal devoted to the biology and management of moose.

And there is at least some reason to believe that if the moose can be baited into areas with attractive stands of natural food -- willows, birch or aspen trees -- they might just stay there after the baiting stops. Where such areas might be found is, however, unclear. One of the authors of "Ecology and Management of the North American Moose," a now-retired federal biologist who for years worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game but didn't want his named used for fear of getting tangled up in the messy politics of wildlife management in Alaska today, noted that most moose have already learned where the best winter range is to be found and naturally move into those areas on their own once the snow flies.

New winter feeding areas could conceivably be created by chopping down birch, aspen and willow trees that have grown so tall moose can't reach the branches on which they normally browse, Kavalok said, but it's up to the Moose Federation to figure out how to do that. Cutting trees will require permission from property owners -- local, state, federal or private. Where this might happen in the Valley is unclear, and there clearly isn't going to be any tree cutting going on in Anchorage.

Anchorage moose left to Darwin

The Moose Federation's feeding permit exempts most of the Municipality of Anchorage, said Jessy Coltrane, the area wildlife biologist. The permit allows the Moose Federation to engage in "diversionary feeding" only on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where permission from the Department of Defense will be needed, or in the Portage area some 40 miles east of the city, where permission from Chugach National Forest rangers will be necessary.

Anchorage moose, like moose (and humans) in many areas of the state, are struggling in deep snow this year, but the big problem in the city is that there are already too many people feeding the animals. That is against the law, but Alaskans don't always worry about the law when they think they're doing good deeds.

"We're having lots of problems with people feeding moose," Coltrane said. There are two big pitfalls to this practice. One of them is that moose fed by people learn to approach people looking for food. It can be dangerous to have a 1,000-pound animal come galloping up to you looking for a handout, especially if you have no handout to give it. Moose in that situation have been known to get dangerously aggressive with their demands.

The other problem is that the wrong food can kill a moose once its complicated digestive system has adapted to the normal winter diet of twigs and bark.

"If you feed them something that is grass-based like hay, it can get balled up in their stomach," said Kris Hundertmark, associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "That ball can get stuck in the digestive system and block it, and the moose can die."

Hundertmark used to work for Fish and Game and spent 15 years living on the Kenai Peninsula. In every deep-snow winter, he said, there were problems with well-meaning people feeding moose to try to save them.

"We discouraged people from doing this," he said. "Feeding wildlife is a Pandora's box."

This isn't Norway

About all anyone can effectively do for starving moose in Alaska is pack trails to make it easier for moose to get around and cut down birch, aspen and willow trees to help increase the amount of forage available for them, Hundertmark said. Unless, of course, the state or some organization wants to spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to go all in.

"This is done in Norway," said Pekins, the New Hampshire moose authority. The Norwegians maintain winter feed lots for moose to help keep the animals away from roads and railroads, and to protect young forests the moose might otherwise devour.

"It's funny you called," he said Wednesday. "I've just been communicating with some Norwegians about how much food they need (to feed) based on digestibility."

What the Norwegians are trying to do, he said, is determine the least feeding necessary to keep their moose alive through the winter. Moose have evolved to survive an annual period of starvation. "You're goal is not to provide 100 percent of the diet," Pekins said. "It's not like a horse where you're trying to maintain its weight." A moose can easily lose 10 to 15 percent of its body mass over the winter and be fine, he said.

Norway is big on moose, or what they call elk. The country is estimated to be home to between 90,000 and 120,000 moose. Alaska is estimated to support between 175,000 and 200,000 moose. This despite the fact Alaska is about five times the size of Norway.

The two areas are, however, significantly different. Norway is a highly developed European country where moose are considered a private asset. Alaska is largely a wilderness where moose are publicly owned and considered to be part of a functioning wild ecosystem, which means that not just people eat them. Wolves and bears eat them, too, and no effort is made to overcome the influences of weather. It's a lot different in Norway.

"Moose are an economic property in Norway to the land owner," Pekins said. Private property owners protect them from predation and feed them in winter to keep them alive to sell to hunters the next year. "Moose represent something very, very different to them," Pekins said. "That is their red meat."

When he was in Norway in the late 1990s, he said, property owners were charging $800 to $1,000 to shoot a cow moose. Hunters would buy a permit -- or permits -- not just to bag a moose for the family, but to provide moose meat for the market. "You can turn around and sell that meat," Pekins said. "The economy around this is fascinating. You could shoot many."

The economy, he said, gives private landowners an incentive to feed moose in the winter. Sometimes, he said, there is a double incentive for the largest landowners. They can keep moose in feed lots to protect young forests growing toward saleable-size trees while growing moose to be sold to hunters.

"I'm not advocating winter feeding at all," Pekins added. "But can it work? Absolutely. Is that the best policy in this country? Probably not."

The list of potential problems when dealing with a public resource in America is long, he said, but one can start with two big ones: Cost and location. Feeding is expensive, and there are big questions about where to put feedlots. Nobody in America -- home to the attitude that spawned the acronym NIMBY (not in my backyard) -- is going to want to live next to a feedlot full of temperamental moose. Nor are most taxpayers going to want to pay to feed them.  Good intentions go only so far once bills start arriving.

Kavalok said the state isn't about to pay the Moose Federation to feed moose, and the more than $1 million in state funding the organization has already received cannot legally be used for that purpose.

It's much different in Norway.

"The difference is that all the landowners are generating revenue," Pekins said. "This (feeding) is driven by private landowners, not the the state, not the county. These (feeding areas) are out of the way. They're way out in the forest" in the center of large, private land.

And nobody is worrying about saving any moose. They're in the business of growing them so they can kill them much like cattle. It's really just another version of farming. Alaska, for worse or for better, does not farm its moose.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com