Trying to hit a moving target: How do we keep the state’s moose population healthy?

Moose are in mid-rut in most areas of the Interior. The early snow has made moose readily visible along the Denali Highway and the Richardson. Don’t forget tracks. Moose can’t hide their tracks. The result is that not just wildlife managers have the ability to spot and count moose from the air; anyone who chooses to get out in the field can get a decent handle on moose numbers in a given area.

Granted, a snowmobile trip into ones favorite hunting area is not a decent indicator of overall moose population in a unit or sub-unit. However, if a number of folks are out in the field, and take the information they have garnered to their local Fish and Game advisory meeting, a picture may emerge that can indicate local trends.

Moose get studied to death. Anyone involved with Board of Game decisions, or ADF&G decisions on how to stabilize moose populations is very aware of how many times the “wheel” has been re-invented. Each new cycle of management swears that they are now right and the previous protocols were all established on limited information. That is undoubtedly true to some extent. It will continue to be true as we move forward with ungulate management.

There have been many comparisons made with Scandinavian moose management and the direction of our management in Alaska. This is an apples and oranges relationship. Feed availability, access to hunt areas, climate differences and predator impacts show little or no similarities to Alaskan management. Virtually every moose in Sweden lives within a half-mile of a maintained road and has a field to feed in. And how many bears eat moose calves in that country? Forget comparing management.

Winter kill and predators are the biggest unknowns for our Alaskan moose. The hunter success rate is relatively poor in Alaska. We have many hunters and many restrictions as to what animal we can legally take. Seasons are short. Access is poor over most of the hunt areas, resulting in some crowded conditions in areas that most hunters can reach.

Everyone has an ATV; thus trail systems often have more traffic than the main highway. There is no solving that problem. My guess is 90% of hunters, statewide, have road access to under a third of the state’s moose population. This results in a continuing headache for game management. The solution for the past thirty years, has been antler restrictions and limited cow hunts. The strategy seems to be working reasonably well. Hunters have grudgingly come to accept these solutions.

Predator control has also come to be an accepted tool, though not an extremely popular one. We can kill bears and wolves in an effort to provide more moose for humans. We have no real idea of the long-term effects of this. We can shoot many of our “over fifty” moose, plus a goodly number of yearling spike-fork moose. We have no idea of the long term effects of that management tool either.

Common sense tells us that killing a big portion of our larger animals will eventually take a toll on that portion of the gene pool. We don’t eat the antlers, so how important is that really? Predator control is a different question altogether.

Wolves don’t just kill a moose and eat it. Their kill and much of what they kill goes to feed other carnivores in the field. Foxes, wolverines and ravens are all heavily dependent on a healthy wolf population. Wolves take a cross-section of moose available in any given area. In that, they can be beneficial to the overall health of a moose herd.

Bears are a different issue. The primary target of bears, whether they are black bear or grizzlies, are calves. Calf survival is one of the primary keys to successful moose recruitment. Wolf control can, and is done primarily from the air by private pilots under terms of a permit. That is not going to happen with grizzly bears. Liberal spring bear hunts have not proved to be a solution to bear predation.

At this time there does not seem to be a clear answer to the absolute health of our Alaskan moose population. I suspect there may never be. However, as hunters and outdoorsmen, whether one chooses to hunt or not, it is important to provide our input on ideas and potential answers we may have. Attend your local advisory meetings. Stop in at Board of Game meetings and provide your testimony. Honest, open discussion always has the best chance of success.

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.