Often, it’s what you don’t see that tells you what’s happening with Alaska wildlife

“Didn’t see no caribou. Didn’t see no caribou tracks.”

When you’re in the woods or on the highway, it isn’t what you see that tells you what is going on in the outdoors. It is what you don’t see.

A recent drive south from Delta to Meier’s Lake and then back to Paxson along the Denali Highway to the Maclaren River drove that premise home.

The Delta Junction area is moosey. This surprises me somewhat as the browse quality appears poor.

However, winters are easy enough, with relatively low snow in many areas due to wind blow. When we drive, we expect to see moose. More than half the cows I have spotted the past couple weeks are accompanied by new calves. That is what I did see.

What I am not seeing is wolf tracks. Nor have I seen any bear sign in the Jarvis, Donnelly, Paxson or Maclaren areas. Does that indicate predation is down? A cow/calf ration greater than 50% might also give that indication. It is far too early to tell, but that is a starting point.

We saw cows with calves in several locations on the way to Maclaren, even in areas that normally have a fair number of bears. There is plenty of snow on the Denali for the first 40 miles. “Didn’t see no bear, didn’t see no bear tracks.”

I now have a working hypothesis based on what I did not see.

Normally a spring drive to Paxson and along the Denali will yield a fair number of porcupine sightings. Nary a porcupine did I see. What preys on porcupines in our area? Nothing in the wild. There are some who believe coyotes eat porcupines. I won’t deny that, but I think if you do research, you will find it is uncommon. More porcupines are hit by cars along our area roads than all of the coyotes along the Delta River eat in a year.

The lack of dead porcupines along the Richardson Highway leads me to believe that something killed many of our porcupines prior to winter.

Now, porcupines don’t range far, and there are still fair numbers away from the road; we are seeing them on the back trails. What happened to the critters along the road?

Last fall I found almost a dozen porcupines close to the Richardson and Denali highways that had been shot and left. If you take the time to read some outdoor forums you will find there are quite a number of guys who think that all porcupines should be killed.

Their reasons are varied. Whether you agree or disagree is not the issue at this time. But, we do have a theory to start with — based on what we didn’t see this spring.

Ptarmigan sightings were between scarce and none on our drive. Additionally, the lack of normal goshawk activity led me to believe that the ptarmigan population is indeed low.

Goshawks are our primary predators of spring ptarmigan along the Denali. A very rainy June last year likely took a heavy toll on chicks. That rain, coupled with a healthy aerial predator population that needed prey after the hare crash, makes it seem likely that the state bird took a hit.

The Upper Gulkana has the highest number of nesting trumpeter swans in Alaska. It is also has the highest average terrain elevation. Thus the past several cold springs may have had a devastating effect on nesting birds.

We spotted only two pairs of swans in a 200-mile drive. In a normal spring we’d count 20 pairs along this route. Adult trumpeters have few natural predators. The cold springs and the incumbent lack of recruitment almost seems a no-brainer.

Lastly, the lack of ice on Paxson Lake also leads to a logical conclusion — based on what we didn’t see.

That lack of ice tells me the whitefish and lake trout will be biting like mad for the next couple of weeks. Sockeye fry are flooding into the lake and hungry predator fish will be cruising the shallow water with their mouths open. A winter under the ice with limited feed has made them voracious.

Pay attention to what you don’t see.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest sled-dog race.