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A meaty issue: Trading moose for mice hunting

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: May 7, 2017
  • Published May 7, 2017

"Meat's meat," was a lesson learned the hard way by rugged trappers and other mountain men in the American West. The saying reflected an attitude undoubtedly adopted from Native Americans, who already practiced this pragmatic philosophy.

I bring this up because many Alaskans eat wild game. Beginning in 1994, the Alaska Legislature mandated Alaska's wildlife be managed primarily to produce meat. The intensive management law requires the Alaska Board of Game to ensure that populations of moose, caribou and deer provide an "adequate and sustained" supply for sport and subsistence hunters. In many parts of the state this means the predators most dependent on moose — wolves and bears — may be shot by state employees or contractors to leave more moose for humans.

But if it's meat you're after, there's a much more abundant source underfoot.

'Pleasing, if rather bland'

In his book "Never Cry Wolf," Farley Mowat described eating voles, the small, mouse-like creatures ubiquitous across Alaska. Their taste, he claims, is "pleasing, if rather bland."

A northern red-backed vole climbing down a tree (UAF photo by Todd Paris)

Mowat's "experiment" was purportedly designed to test whether a wolf could survive on an exclusive diet of mice. For nutritional reasons, he consumed the whole vole, including the head and guts, sans pelt.

One of Mowat's chief arguments in the book, subtitled an "amazing true story," was that the wolves' summer diet "consisted chiefly of mice." That's just wrong.

Mowat wasn't a scientist, and much of what he wrote in "Never Cry Wolf" was discredited by his supervisor, A.W.F. Banfield, one of the most respected wildlife biologists in Canada. In 1964, a year after Mowat's book was published to great critical and popular acclaim, Banfield submitted a commentary in The Canadian Field-Naturalist describing Mowat's work as "semi-fictional" and comparing the bestseller to "Little Red Riding Hood," because "both stories have about the same factual content."

But you get the impression that Mowat really did consume the rodents.

Mice, as any wildlife manager can tell you, produce far more meat than moose. Don't believe that? Keep reading.

Moose vs. mice

Alaskans and nonresident hunters harvest 6,000-8,000 moose annually. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures an adult moose yields about 500 pounds of meat, while a large bull caribou yields about 100 pounds.

But Alaska's harsh climate supports relatively few large mammals. An estimated 175,000 moose in Alaska boils down to about one moose per 3.8 square miles. With studies estimating about 1,040 red-backed voles per square mile in suitable habitat, there appears to be some 4,000 voles for every moose.

Red-backed voles are most common in boreal woodlands and shrub habitats where moose hang out. But Alaska has 15 species of voles and related species, including tundra and meadow voles, which are as abundant as red-backed voles in tundra and grassland habitats. The roster includes two species of lemmings, and, thanks to Walt Disney's 1958 movie "White Wilderness," we all know how abundant lemmings can get.

In other words, unlike large antlered animals, there is no shortage of mouse-like creatures in Alaska.

Better yet, because they anchor the bottom of the food chain, a vole's reproductive potential is legendary. A cow moose produces twins just about every year. By comparison, a captive female vole produced 17 litters in a year, totaling 83 young. She might have been holding back. One of her offspring from the first litter produced 13 litters, totaling 79 young that same year.

A scientist studying voles did the math. Beginning in April, a population of 100 voles can produce 8,900 voles by September.

OK, you might counter, but doesn't a moose have way more meat than a mouse? Let's break that down.

Mice are a lot easier to trap than to shoot. So the number of mice you can harvest depends on habitat, season and how many traps you can carry. A former state wildlife biologist, Jack Whitman averaged as many as 29.4 red-backed voles per 100 trap-nights in the McGrath area. In other words, 100 traps left out overnight yielded 29 voles. Obviously, the more traps you can carry, the more mice you'll catch.

A simple, wooden mousetrap weighs about as much as a vole, about 22 grams. So 200 traps weigh about as much as a rifle and ammunition. The average mouse hunter should be able to pack 1,000 traps, weighing about 48 pounds. Using a four-wheeler or boat, like most moose and caribou hunters, it wouldn't be out of the question to carry 10,000 traps.

Setting 1,000 mouse traps in suitable habitat should yield 290 mice per night. A successful moose hunter often spends a week or more in the field. In those seven days, a capable walk-in hunter ought to be able to bring home 2,000 voles. That's 97 pounds of prime mouse meat, about as much as a caribou. An enthusiastic motorized hunter with strong thumbs could easily harvest 10 times that, or enough mouse meat to equal two moose or 10 caribou.

If meat production is your only goal, the plural of moose is mice.

A mouse feeds in a raspberry bush in West Anchorage. (Erik Hill / ADN archive 2015)

A modest proposal

Alaska's Board of Game manages voles as well as moose, caribou and wolves. However, despite the superabundance of voles, there is no closed season or bag limit. As far as the board is concerned, kill as many voles as you want whenever you want.

I think the board is missing an opportunity to reduce hunting pressure on moose and caribou without going to all the trouble and expense of predator control. All it has to do is plug the nutritional value of wild mouse meat and let hunters take voles with a small game license.

Mowat created a field-camp version of a cream sauce for the voles. But there are more sophisticated recipes. Cooks.com offers a dish called field mouse pie, and a cookbook with the tantalizing title "Unmentionable Cuisine," featuring a mouse recipe that employs pine nuts and anchovy paste.

Truth be told, hunting is not just about the meat. It fosters companionship, nature appreciation and not a little competition. Some hunters, particularly urban sport hunters and nonresidents, are more interested in the trophy than the meat. Good news. A trophy bull vole weighs less than 2 ounces. That's a lot less weight to pack out than a 70-inch moose rack and cape.

Because it's not just about the meat, I'm afraid no red-blooded Alaska hunter is going to voluntarily switch to mice when the state is willing to kill predators so he can hunt more moose. That's too bad. Mouse hunting satisfies many of the same social urges as moose hunting.

Ice clings to the fur of a bull moose browsing at Eastchester Lagoon near downtown Anchorage on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

By ignoring voles, the Alaska Legislature and Game Board are leaving a lot of meat on the table.

I'm not advocating that Alaskans switch entirely from moose to mouse. To do so would be to indulge in satire, and those who believe people are just another predator don't have a sense of humor.

So-called intensive management was a political solution to a perceived shortage of wild meat. Eating voles would take some of the pressure off what Don Young refers to, somewhat biblically, as "the cloven-hoof animal" and perhaps end the need to shoot wolves and bears in dens and from airplanes and helicopters at great public expense.

Responsible predators like wolves and bears are already eating mice. It's time for humans to step up to the plate.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist and freelance writer. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.

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