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From nothing, Cordova moose grew into a healthy population

Dick ShellhornThe Cordova Times
Jennifer Gibbins / The Cordova Times

CORDOVA --- Moose season is here again, and several lucky permit holders have already filled their cow or bull tags for this year. The big animals have provided an amazing bounty for almost all Cordovans, as the successful hunters generously share their game.

Decades ago the huge ungulates were transplanted here, but the details are worth revisiting. We all owe a big debt of gratitude to those ambitious go-getters of the late 1940's and early 50's who spearheaded the effort.

It started with the local Isaak Walton League, who at that time met in a cabin in Nirvana Park. Hollis Henrich, Ross Green, Ed King, Don Green, Curly Hoover, and Charley Evans led the effort. Alaska was a territory back then, and it required the approval of local U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Fred Robards, plus Holder Larsen in Anchorage.

Clarence Rhodes, top agent for the USFWS in Alaska, thought it was a wonderful idea. Plus Andy Simons, a well-known authority on game in Alaska and head of the territorial big-game guides, also gave his approval.

Simons, incidentally, had Guide License No. 1, the first issued in Alaska, and operated out of Seward for years. He was with my grandfather, William Shellhorn, when they bagged the third largest Dall sheep in the world at Upper Russian Lake on the Kenai in the 1930s. The mount now hangs on the wall at Whiskey Ridge Trading Company.

Approval by all the agents led to the first transplant of abandoned calves from the Kenai Peninsula via Mudhole Smith's Cordova Air Service in 1949. A young bull and two cows where flown in, to be raised in the lawn in the front of the old Post Office, (now the U.S. Forest Service Building) mainly by Henrichs, the postmaster, and Ross Green, the Post Office caretaker. Once strong enough, the young moose were released into a block-size penned area where Mt. Eccles Elementary now stands.

A lonely moose named Kenai

Successfully nursing the young calves proved a challenge, and only the one bull survived the first year. He was naturally named Kenai, and was released that fall at the junction of the highway and the Sheridan Glacier Road. Can you imagine being the only little moose wandering around the Delta that winter and following spring?

He proved to have the right stuff and, according to Ed King, "no doubt sired the first moose to be born on the Delta." Which didn't take long. Robards reported observing a cow with calf in the fall of 1952, which meant the cow has bred as a yearling and bore a calf as a 2-year-old. Go Kenai!

The Isaac Walton League became much better at rearing the young moose, and the program continued until 1958, with a total of 24 moose calves transplanted.

Amazingly, by 1960 the herd had grown big enough to allow the first hunt. Twenty five bulls were taken that year. Current Alaska Department of Fish and Game Biologist Dave Crowley couldn't find historical data on population estimates based on aerial surveys anywhere in the old records, but estimated the herd must have been roughly 200 by that time, using a typical harvest rate of about 12 percent.

Kenai and his buddies had put in a busy seven years. It's hard to believe there was only one bull and two cows on the whole Delta in 1950. Of course, as Crowley pointed out, the area was pristine, flush with willow, a favorite browse of moose. Also, there were far fewer predators, bear in particular, prior to the 1964 earthquake and uplift that dramatically changed the habitat. Much of the Delta below the road was short marsh grass, which is hard to believe 50 years later.

The next harvest was in 1962, again 25 bulls. Over the years, the herd grew and expanded to the east side of the Copper River, with increasing harvest of both cows and bulls. The first antlerless hunt was held in 1968. Hunters became more efficient, particularly with the use of airboats, in harvesting moose far off the road. In 1978, some 120 were taken in the first day before Fish and Game could shut the hunt down. That was 40 more than the goal.

Moose habitat doubles

Reporting kills at roadside check points just didn't work to regulate the harvest anymore. Plus crowded hunting conditions along certain parts of the road were creating conflicts and safety issues. So the drawing permit system was renewed, resolving management issues as well as creating better hunting conditions spread out over a long season.

Crowley said the Cordova-area moose made it through this past tough winter in surprisingly good condition. "Winter mortality was pretty insignificant."

Crowley said the estimated population on the west side of the Delta is 600. Over the years Fish and Game biologists have learned that a population of between 400 and 500 is probably the optimal size for the carrying capacity of the area.

"The moose habitat on the Delta is probably about double what it was prior to the earthquake", said Crowley, "so it can sustain more animals. But the key is the winter range, which was hit hard this past year. Check out any willow bush on the Delta, and you will see it had been chewed down to the nubs over the winter."

What about future transplants, mainly to diversify the gene pool from that small original herd? Crowley sees that as unlikely. "Too many agencies involved these days. The Native Village of Eyak has been trying to pursue this. Plus there is a concern about bringing in diseases from other areas to this isolated herd."

In the meantime, the hunt is on. It's not uncommon to drive out the road this time of year and see a truck or airboat on its way to town with moose antlers or legs sticking out.

What a bounty it has been. Crowley has harvest records for every Delta hunt. What would you guess is the total number of moose that have been taken from that first hunt in 1960 through last year?

No one I have asked has come close.

The answer is 5,040 moose. Using the conservative estimate of 500 pounds of meat, cut and wrapped, per animal, that is an astonishing 2.5 million pounds of moose -- roughly 1,000 pounds of moose per Cordovan.

A big bounty from a small beginning, thanks to those Isaak Walton pioneers and a small, hardy group of moose who must have thought they landed in paradise. Perhaps the only mistake the local conservation group made was in the choice of name for that first bull.

He should have been named Adam, adorned with a Golden Collar, and awarded Lifetime Immunity.

Dick Shellhorn, 2012 Cordova Citizen of the Year, writes about local history and events. He can be reached at shorn(at)gci.net. Used with permission of The Cordova Times