The Denali Highway has snow on the mountain tops. The fireweed has bloomed out. There are hunting camps in Amphitheater Pass. It is officially fall. The only thing that is missing is the wildlife.
What has happened?
There is never a single reason that affects the disappearance of game animals. One can point at an underlying cause that might be in the forefront, but there are always a variety of factors involved. In the case of the east end of the Denali Highway, the unusual snowpack is considered the defining issue.
The moose population is dismal along the highway. That population has been in decline for several years, in spite of what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game might tell you. Regulations that emphasize roadside hunting have been a major factor. The requirement that was put in place years ago that required Unit 13 Tier I caribou hunters to also only hunt moose in the same unit has focused far too many hunters in an area that can’t take the pressure. Community hunt regulations have added their burden to an already stressed roadside population. Add a terrific amount of snow that came early and stayed late and — the result is obvious.
Caribou have also been affected by the snowpack. There was still fair snow on the ground at the time when the cows normally move across the Richardson Highway and trek into the edge of the Talkeetna Mountains to calve. That undoubtedly made a difference in how and where the animals moved. It is also likely that that a substantial number of Nelchina caribou joined with the Fortymile caribou herd. The winter range of both herds intersect. The Denali, at least on the east side of the highway, is devoid of caribou. There are so few animals that the opening day hunters are leaving only a day after arriving.
Ptarmigan are another bleak spot. The lack of ptarmigan is an enigma. Spring ptarmigan were weak along the highway. The winter population was decent, off-road. The weather was warm and dry when the chicks should have been hatching, thus survival of broods should have been decent. But I have yet to see a single bird while driving between Paxson and Maclaren. Nor have there been any birds along the river bars. Granted, it has been rainy and cold the past several weeks, which will keep birds under cover, which could be a factor.
Squirrels: Where have all of the park squirrels gone? The squirrels my dogs chase around the cabin every year are gone. There are none along the highway between 29 mile and 39 mile, which is usually a hot spot. Maybe the torrential downpours of late drowned them ... I know those rains almost got me.
Ducks: The water levels in ponds and lakes are up in the brush. That suits diving ducks fine, but puddle ducks have trouble feeding in their accustomed locales. Ducks are pretty mobile critters. Fifty miles isn’t a stretch for them. Whatever the reason, they are scarce in lakes that are usually packed with pintails and widgeon.
Fishermen should be happy. High, cold, water keeps lake trout active. Tangle Lakes should be excellent. Grayling are tougher to fish under high-water conditions because of the amount of moving feed available. The right presentation will yield good results.
The other factor in the lack of game that is the only thing that we humans have a tiny bit of control over. This control factor is regulations. We could run through regulations that might affect local abundance of various species — but that would just create a major discussion of individual perceptions.
The final solution step to regulation is the Alaska Board of Game. I believe that therein lies the weak point. The BOG was set up with the idea that in a far-flung and diverse environment like Alaska, a game board member from Southeast might need some input from a Noatak resident before he decides on moose regulations that affect that area. Voila! Advisory committees came into being. Local knowledge. That is a pretty good concept. Suffice to say, over the past half-dozen BOG cycles, local advisory input has been ignored or modified into unrecognizable regulation. How do we change that? Change the BOG members more often? Give advisory committees more power? Take politics out of the process? These suggestions might work, but are only very remote possibilities.
As hunters and outdoorsmen and women, we can’t fix the weather. Rain, snow and cold are all out of our control. Any regulation process we implement are slow fixes at best. An attempt to respond to a climatic event is impossible under the present three-year BOG cycle. Possibly, in high-impact game management units along the highway system, a shorter board cycle may be beneficial. We won’t solve all of the issues with management, but we may be able to make the outdoor experience a bit better.