An Alaskan walking with his family in one of the most developed areas of Denali National Park used a sidearm to shoot a charging female moose in the head last week, park officials said.
The moose had to be dispatched by park rangers, said spokeswoman Kris Fister. No calves were seen in the area, but the moose was lactating, Fister said. Rangers have been looking for a pair of orphaned calves even though they don't know whether they would try to rescue them if they're found.
The cow moose was the second large animal known to have been killed in Denali since Congress allowed visitors to bring guns into the national parks in 2010 under the same restrictions that states impose outside park boundaries, which in the case of Alaska is not much. A backcountry hiker shot and killed a grizzly in Denali in June 2010.
Prior to the law, guns were banned in five national parks in Alaska, including three of the most visited: Denali, Glacier Bay and Katmai.
"Until 2010, we've never had anyone legally shoot wildlife in the park," Fister said. The prime purpose of the national park system is to protect wildlife and to encourage wildlife viewing by people. "That's what people come to Alaska to see, right?" she said.
The moose was shot Thursday about 7:30 p.m. on a trail some 200 yards from the park's main visitor center near the park entrance, Fister said.
"Their report was that they came around a corner and ran into this moose and then she started charging them," Fister said. "They got behind a tree, apparently, and she was still coming toward them and the gentleman felt threatened and pulled out a handgun and shot her in the head, but didn't kill her."
Fister said the man was with a woman, two children aged 5 and 7, and an adult friend. He reported firing a single shot, Fister said.
Fister said she didn't know the identity of the man or where in Alaska the family lived. Rangers are investigating to determine whether the shooting was justified. Fister said she didn't believe there were other witnesses beside the members of the group.
Reports of two orphaned calves have been coming in to park headquarters, but as of Monday afternoon they were unconfirmed, Fister said. While the calves could have belonged to the moose that was killed, there was another cow in the vicinity that also had a pair of calves, Fister said.
It's possible the dead cow moose had already lost its calves, she said, but if rangers monitoring the area do find an orphan or two, there's been some headscratching about what they would do. The reflex in a national park, as in most wilderness areas, would be to let nature take its course, but the trail is in a well-visited area where a bear kill could pose a problem. In addition, it wasn't nature that took the cow, but a visitor with a gun.
"It's unprecedented for us to figure this out," she said. "We're not cruel, heartless people, but usually it takes care of itself out there."
A moose calf might be old enough by now to survive on its own on vegetation, Fister said, but it would be an easy mark for a predator.
Wildlife biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe, a former state Board of Game member, said he's gotten a reliable report that two moose calves were seen Sunday hanging around the area where the moose was shot, but he's also not sure whether they should be rescued or left alone.
"Their chances of living for more then four or five days are pretty slim," Van Ballenberghe said.
But there are also documented cases of a cow moose with its own calves adopting orphans, Van Ballenberghe said.
"I saw a remarkable picture once of a cow with five calves," he said. At least two had to have been adopted, he said.
While it's legal to carry firearms openly or concealed in the park, they remain illegal in park facilities. Discharging a weapon is also illegal unless it's in defense of life or property.
In the case of the hiker who killed the grizzly in 2010 with nine shots from his .45-caliber pistol, park officials ruled the shooting justified. The bear had charged the man's girlfriend, they said.
Only one person has been killed by a bear inside the park since it was established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. That happened last August when a backpacker from San Diego was fatally mauled. Park authorities said photos on his camera indicated he lingered to take pictures after initially spotting the animal. A bear thought to be the animal that mauled the man was later shot and killed.
On Thursday, the visitors center had closed for the day when the family encountered the moose, Fister said. The area is generally quiet by that time, she said.
The man reported the shooting to an employee who was cleaning up the visitors center, Fister said. The employee summoned rangers, who found the wounded moose and killed it. The carcass was donated, Fister said.
Jeff Olson, a spokesman for the U.S. Park Service in Washington, D.C., said there has been at least one other bear shooting in a park since the 2010 law passed. That was in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, he said, and it was also ruled justifiable.
Another man who was caught target shooting on the park service-managed Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from Virginia to North Carolina, was cited for illegally discharging a weapon, Olson said.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER