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How many moose live in Anchorage? For the first time, residents help biologists count

In Anchorage, moose are everywhere.

They loiter in front of our garage doors at inconvenient times, eat our Halloween jack-o'-lanterns off our porches and denude our trees. Seeing moose may be among the most universal Anchorage experiences: A 2010 study on local attitudes toward wildlife found that 94 percent of residents surveyed had "enjoyed watching moose."

But as much a part of daily life as moose are in Alaska's biggest city, state biologists haven't been able to get a good count of how many live in urban Anchorage.

Widely cited Anchorage moose populations — 1,200? 2,000? — are essentially guesses.

"There's a gap here," said Dave Saalfeld, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We're estimating using things like roadkill numbers to say how many are in the area."

This week, in hopes of changing that, Fish and Game launched an ambitious experiment to see whether Anchorage's love affair — or at least fascination with — urban moose can be harnessed to help researchers get a more accurate count.

For two days starting Sunday, the department asked the public to call, text or email every time they saw a moose. Roving teams of biologists armed with dart guns were dispatched to the sighting locations around the city. If all went according to plan, they darted the moose to gather a DNA sample.

The effort is the first time the department has solicited help from the public on this level, biologists say.

"Nobody has done this before," said Sean Farley, a research biologist with the department and one of the architects of the plan. "Certainly not with moose."

Early indications point to Alaska's moose-spotting public showing up in a big way: The department said it could barely keep up with the hundreds of reports that rolled in starting at sunrise on Sunday.

Ultimately, the samples collected could help researchers construct a genetic family tree of Anchorage moose. It could also signal a new role for the public in wildlife research in Anchorage.

A grand experiment

On Sunday afternoon, the grand experiment was underway.

Wildlife technician Nicole DeLuca and biologist Sean Farley strategize the best approach for darting a moose in northeast Anchorage on Sunday. (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

Farley and Nicole DeLuca were putting miles on the big white Fish and Game truck, driving around Muldoon looking for moose. They saw what looked like fresh tracks, and followed them to the crest of a hill overlooking an assisted living home at the base of the Chugach Mountains.

Farley took a shot. The young female moose ran off. DeLuca, a graduate student at Alaska Pacific University and a research technician, picked up the green cylinder, called a "biopsy dart." The dart is designed to hit the moose, taking a tiny bit of skin with it, but not sedating the animal. Then it falls off. The samples will be frozen and later analyzed in a lab.

Biologists can use the DNA to begin constructing a genetic family tree of moose in Anchorage, Farley said, mapping out relationships between parents, offspring and distant relatives. That genetic family tree can then be used to calculate an overall population, he said. The technique was developed to count bluefin tuna.

"It's a billion-dollar industry and they have a worse time than we do trying to calculate how many there are," he said.

Research biologist Sean Farley holds a recovered biopsy dart after shooting a young moose on Sunday. The dart is able to capture a little bit of skin that can be later analyzed. “They come in different sizes,” Farley said. “This is the size that’s best for the moose so it doesn’t stick. It just bounces out.” (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

The traditional method for quantifying a moose population is an aerial survey, in which biologists fly low over an area in winter and count the animals, whose dark coats stand out against white snow. That doesn't work in the lower-elevation areas of the Anchorage Bowl because of flight restrictions, Saalfeld said. Plus, the last few winters have been almost snowless.

The new plan — with its mashup of public calls, canvassing and DNA sampling — "had a lot of moving pieces," Farley said Sunday. Success rested on the public's involvement.

Fish and Game employees can drive grids of neighborhoods looking for moose, but "the majority of moose are behind people's houses and places you can't see," Saalfeld said.

A test of logistics

As of Monday morning, the public-involvement part seemed to be going well. The Department did not expect "the sheer volume of calls" it had been fielding, Saalfeld said.

Halfway through the two-day count there were so many that teams were having a hard time keeping up.

"We had 134 calls, between voicemails and emails. Oh, plus the texts," Saalfeld said, sitting in a ground-floor office turned control center at Fish and Game headquarters on Raspberry Road. "And we have more coming in."

A worker listening to moose-sighting voicemails from the public handed back a new list, with addresses and a brief description. ("Moose outside of condo" and "moose eating my tree" were two reports.)

But the work had been slower and more painstaking than anticipated: Some of the moose were gone by the time the teams arrived. In a few cases, the darted moose didn't run away and the team had to wait for a safe distance to grab the sample.

By the end of the first day, Saalfeld had dispatched 43 roving teams to check out timely sightings, out of more than 100 calls. Only 25 moose had been darted.

This week's sample gathering is really just a test of the logistics involved, Farley said.

"We're testing the logistics," he said. "These samples will be useful. But we're doing this to find out stuff like, how many teams do we need to cover the area? Are people gonna call in, or are they gonna text?"

With the kinks worked out, a full survey could happen as soon as early winter. If all goes well, the experiment could yield usable data within a few years, Saalfeld said.

It could not only answer questions about how many moose are in Anchorage, but about their movement patterns.

On the lookout for moose

Biologist Sean Farley (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

Later on Sunday Farley and DeLuca ended up chasing down a moose sighting near Old Harbor Avenue, a tranquil street off Muldoon of well-kept houses with big front yards. They had seen a big cow moose in the strip between the backyard and a fence backing up to some ball fields.

The snow was too deep to walk in, and Farley wasn't sure he wanted to send DeLuca in wearing snowshoes. You can't run away from a moose very quickly in snowshoes.

Farley asked the guy who answered the door if he could go in the backyard.

The moose stakeout continued. Eventually Farley fired a dart, but it hit the moose too low in the body. They decided they'd come back the next day to try again to collect a sample.

While they were on the stakeout, an SUV pulled into the driveway and three women got out wearing Sunday church clothes. The big cow moose in the backyard came around every year, one said. Over the years, they'd come to think of it as their own moose.

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