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Rescuing orphaned Alaska moose proves an elusive equation

  • Author: Jenny Neyman
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 15, 2015

Of all Alaska's varied wildlife, moose are a dichotomous breed unto themselves. In appearance, certainly -- massive bodies on spindly legs, front loaded with satellite-dish ears and antennae-array antlers, backed by barely a TV remote-sized tail. And in behavior -- seemingly Disneyland-level docile, yet capable of kicking through a fence, stomping a skull or repelling a bear attack. They can be as ubiquitous as stray dogs in civilization, munching foliage alongside roads, in backyards and through green strips at shopping centers, even though they are still powerful, unpredictable wild animals.

Biologically, they're both hardy and vulnerable, trudging through deep snow in winter, contending with hordes of mosquitoes and hungry wolves and bears in the spring and summer, in constant search for the 40 pounds of browse per day they require to remain healthy. Yet they're equipped with a specialized digestive system that does not lend itself to new menu options when suitable food is scarce.

People's relationship with moose is incongruous, as well. They are prized as a meat and trophy animal, and they're also a delight to wildlife watchers.

They can be a subsistence staple and a nuisance, a celebrity and a challenge to manage.

The Alaska Moose Federation knows this well, and is not unlike moose in sharing those characteristics. The organization was established in 2002 to reduce vehicle collisions, salvage animals that perish and build moose populations in rural areas of Alaska.

"Grow More Moose," the moose federation slogan says.

Since its inception, the moose federation has become a player in Alaska moose management, sometimes clashing antlers with those who disagree with its methods. The organization has gained celebrity, as well, being featured in an episode of "Alaska Moose Men" on the Animal Planet television channel.

"It's a tremendous undertaking to keep up. You can't start something casually and go, 'Eh, I don't feel like keeping up with this,' " said Gary Olson, the organization's founder and executive director. "If it was easy to do, it wouldn't be that big of a deal."

Salvaging a niche

The federation is most familiar for its participation in Alaska's roadkill salvage program, where volunteers in 13 winch-equipped flatbed trucks are dispatched to the site of collisions to retrieve moose carcasses and deliver them to designated charities. Before Alaska Moose Federation's involvement, charity recipients would handle the retrieval and were called out in all manner of cold, dark conditions to butcher and remove carcasses from the side of the road as traffic whizzing past and law enforcement officers tried to maintain safety.

The salvage program started in 2011 in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It expanded to the Kenai Peninsula and was slated for Fairbanks, but the Legislature nixed the federation's request for $2.2 million in continued support in 2013. That forced to organization to scale back its efforts the following winter, though private and corporate donations put salvage trucks back in operation in some areas.

Some $574,000 in grant money from the state purchased the trucks that got the program rolling in 2011. The moose federation's funding request to the Legislature estimated it would cost $22,000 to purchase and modify each truck, as well as $67,000 a year to fuel and $25,000 to insure the fleet.

Alaska Moose Federation also operates conservation projects, aiming to improve moose habitat by cutting down mature trees to encourage new growth for browse and creating winter trails that lead moose away from roadways.

"As an organization we're trying to do more than just pick up dead moose off broken cars and hurt people," Olson said. "That's reactive. We're trying to be more proactive getting these moose back where they belong."

He cites Department of Transportation figures that say vehicle-moose collisions in the winter of 2011-12 resulted in $35 million in vehicle damage and personal injury statewide.

An earlier 2006 report by the Anchorage and Alaska Soil and Water Conservation Districts estimated the cost from moose-vehicle collisions in an average year to be about $13.9 million. But moose collisions in a deep-snow winter, like that of 2011-12, can soar, topping 600.

"So if somebody says, 'Well, this is a waste of money,' I think hitting a moose is a waste of money, and the loss of the resource," Olson said.

Interfering with nature

Moose in Alaska hold a special caveat in wildlife management. A law passed in 2004 directs the Department of Fish and Game, whenever possible, to relocate nuisance moose to suitable habitat away from civilization rather than destroying the animals. And in 2009, Gov. Sarah Palin ordered further protection of the creatures by instituting a policy that directs the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation to rescue orphaned moose calves too young to survive on their own if they are found near roads or communities.

Olson and moose federation supporters were huge proponents of the change.

"Most modern wildlife biologists believe you should not interfere with nature, period," said Bob Hutchison, a retired veterinarian who, along with his wife, Dianne, served as volunteer vets with the moose federation for about four years. "Most do not believe in predator control, stock introduction -- you name it. Alaska in its constitution says, 'Managing wildlife for abundance and to provide for food and resources for the citizens of Alaska.' "

In territorial days and the fledgling years of statehood, nature was tinkered with on a large scale. Herds of animals were moved, wiped-out populations were re-established and stocks were introduced to new areas. Over time, large-scale population projects became rare amid concerns of unintended potential consequences -- impacts to ecosystems, the spread of disease and the like.

The moose federation's view is that it doesn't have to be one way or the other.

"We're trying to educate a whole lot of people of what the state used to do and encouraging them to do it again," Olson said.

Since the mandate to rescue calves in 2009, Fish and Game has taken in about six to 10 calves a year. At first they went into captivity -- zoos, preserves, research facilities, etc. -- but those institutions can only take so many animals. That meant Fish and Game would take spring orphans into temporary custody to be cared for over the summer until the animals were mature enough to be released back into the wild. That responsibility falls to the Division of Wildlife Conservation, but carrying it out strains both staff and funding.

That's where the moose federation comes in. The federation takes in orphaned spring calves for rearing and re-release into the wild under a permit from the state -- a practice seen by some as more humane than leaving the animals die a slower death in nature.

"We're picking up 600 salvage moose a year," Olson said. "Cars, motorcycles and trains have little to do with nature's way. So why is it, then, when these little orphans are by the side of the road, you have to let nature have its way when nature didn't kill its mother?"

Practically, though, the program is a lot of heartburn.

Terms of the permit issued by Wildlife Conservation are particular, covering pen specifications, observation and reporting expectations, limits on human interactions, requirements for post-release monitoring, and so on.

Olson says the terms of the permit at first, in 2010, were too strict for federation to comply with. Protocols were loosened in 2011 and the moose federation began rearing calves on its own, at a facility in Point MacKenzie. In 2012, the federation moved to a new facility in Willow.

Calves come from all over, especially heavily populated areas.

A tricky capture

Mike Niemann began as a volunteer driver with the moose federation in 2011, eventually moving to a staff position as volunteer coordinator and project manager. He's also a Hells Angel and says he has had at least three close calls with moose on his motorcycle. But even big, burly Wild Mike, as he's called, with feral-looking hair and beard befitting that moniker, has a soft spot for moose.

"Yeah, I call them my babies. I called one of them Wild Mike," he said of a calf he helped rescue.

In June 2013, a moose federation salvage truck was called to remove a cow that had been hit and killed on Glenn Highway near the Old Glenn north of Anchorage. The cow was clearly still lactating, so the drivers searched for calves in the area.

Two days later, twins were spotted. The moose federation reported the sighting to Fish and Game, which requires a four-day wait between declaring calves orphaned and allowing the Alaska Moose Federation to attempt capture.

"We were upset because we have to wait four days. They'd leave, be back -- they always come back to the same spot right where Mom got hit. It's a miracle we got those two calves because they should be dead -- starved to death or hit by traffic," Niemann said.

A capture crew headed to the scene as soon as allowed, armed with two large pet crates and a landing net. The calves were on the edge of a marshy area.

"When we were parallel to the calves, they got up. As they got up adrenaline kicked in and I took off to try to get in front of them. My first step was water up to my hip. My second step it got worse -- I was in water to my chest in muskeg," Niemann said.

Niemann managed to catch the male calf, snaking his arms around all four legs and locking his hands together, then slogging back to the crate on dry land. The female, though, headed for the hills after a failed attempt with the net.

"At night all you're thinking about is that calf. 'Is she OK? Will we see her again?

How are we going to get ahold of her?' " Niemann said.

A second attempt was successful, and the female joined her brother at the moose federation facility.

"To watch something you saved the life of like that is awesome. I can never explain that feeling when you get into it as deep as we are," Niemann said.

Nourishing work

That's a feeling Bob and Dianne Hutchison share. When they sold their veterinary practice in Pennsylvania, Dianne's stipulation was to live somewhere with moose. It's a fascination she's had since catching a glimpse of a moose as a kid in Massachusetts.

"I hunt moose. I've killed moose. I eat moose. But I love moose. We know they could be killed for food, but we still enjoy them," Dianne said.

They ended up moving to Willow. Bob is retired, while Dianne does relief vet work, filling in at clinics around the state. Both have large-animal experience, so when moose federation's previous volunteer vet died in 2009, the Hutchisons were enthusiastic about replacing him. They hadn't worked with moose specifically, but became the federation's vets of record, something required by the calf-rearing permit from Wildlife Conservation.

Each new calf taken in by the moose federation was brought first to the Hutchisons' barn for evaluation and observation before going to the rearing facility. If a calf is sick or injured, only minor services are allowed -- addressing a laceration or administering medication, for instance. Calves in bad shape are euthanized.

If a calf is still nursing when taken in by the moose federation, it is bottle-fed a milk formula until old enough to eat natural foods, then weaned to fireweed before consuming regular moose browse like willow and birch. Five calves can eat up to two pickup loads of browse and gain about 2 pounds a day. Providing enough nutrition is no small task, requiring feedings every four hours, around the clock.

Caring for calves successfully requires time, expertise, money, big hearts and, as the Hutchisons learned, tough constitutions.

"They're the most important thing to me," Dianne said in 2013. "It's impossible to raise these babies and not get attached to them."

Her "babies" that year were six moose calves -- the Glenn Highway twins, a male and female from Cordova, one from King Salmon and one from Hatcher Pass.

Another from Palmer had been attacked by dogs and was euthanized after an evaluation found severed nerves in its front leg. The rest were to be taken to Cordova that August and released on the Copper River Delta.

The summer was shaping up to be the most successful of AMF's calf-rearing program. In 2010, of the eight calves reared, only one survived to be released in the fall.

In 2011, of the 11 calves the moose federation raised, four survived to be released. In 2012, just one calf was reared and released.

Maintaining calf health throughout the summer was a challenge, particularly among the bottle-fed younger calves. They became lethargic and weak, their joints swelled, and they lost weight and developed bone fractures, resulting in them having to be euthanized. Dianne said that she followed state protocols for reporting illnesses and deaths, collecting and submitting the required samples for testing and necropsy to a lab designated by Wildlife Conservation. She and Bob awaited results from the testing, hoping a state official from Wildlife Conservation would come back with information and step in to help. When they didn't hear back, the Hutchisons in early 2013 sent samples to Washington State Veterinary College and got a diagnosis, Bob said.

It was rickets, a nutritional deficiency that weakens growing bones. Calves couldn't absorb enough vitamin D from the livestock milk formula they were fed, and their bones became brittle. Dianne said that they used the formula recommended by Wildlife Conservation, and that she hadn't been told the calves needed supplemental vitamin D.

Worst day of career

After discovering it was rickets, she started administering vitamin D shots on July 4, 2013, to the four calves that had been fed the livestock milk-replacer formula. Before long, the Glenn Highway twins were able to start browsing. In two to three weeks they were eating better, joint swelling was reduced, and they were frisky again, Dianne said. Then one morning, the Cordova male was discovered in his pen with both back legs broken and was euthanized. Samples again were sent to the state.

Come mid-August, the other calves seemed healthy enough for their scheduled release trip to Cordova. The designated day -- Saturday, Aug. 17 -- was supposed to be the best of Dianne's veterinary career, releasing five calves she'd cared for all summer into the wild.

"I was looking forward to that day we release them and see them walking into the world," Dianne said. "That's the best moment. I love taking care of them, but I really love seeing them walk away."

But before most people even pour their first cup of coffee on a Saturday morning, it had already turned into the worst day of her career.

Two of the calves didn't even make it into their travel crates. One suffered a leg break as volunteers prepared to fit it with a radio collar. Another pivoted in its pen, with no one even touching it, and broke its leg.

"He went down on his own. We all heard the snap," Bob said. "When the bone is so damaged it becomes fragile, there are weak spots and defects in the bones. I think it was just too late for them to recover, and something like this was just going to happen."

Dianne put the first calf down with a euthanasia drug administered by syringe.

The second she shot with a handgun, out of concern that there might not be enough euthanasia medication to last the day, should further catastrophes occur. Even with the supplemental vitamin D, their bones apparently were too damaged to recover.

‘Heartbreaking’

Dianne's frustration was palpable. It shook her voice. It clenched her jaw. Her eyes teared up when she spoke about the morning.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "And we've had just phenomenal volunteers, and all the volunteers were there to say goodbye to the calves. It's heartbreak for them, too."

The remaining three calves -- the Glenn Highway twins and the female from Cordova -- were gingerly crated up and loaded on a trailer for a drive to Whittier to board a ferry for Cordova. The morning's loss of the two calves dampened the mood of the farewell gathering at the moose federation facility in Willow, and rain canceled a planned Hells Angels escort. But a sense of excitement is irrepressible with moose calves in tow, and at each stop the Alaska Moose Federation-emblazoned trailer turned heads of onlookers hoping to get a look at the calves.

In Cordova the moose federation crew -- Olson, the Hutchisons and a handful of volunteers, including Wild Mike Niemann -- were met by representatives of the Native Village of Eyak, who facilitated a drive out to the Copper River Delta. Accompanying the caravan was a TV crew from Animal Planet, filming the moose federation for an episode of "Alaska Moose Men." At the river, the calf crates were loaded onto a landing craft and motored across the wide, silty Copper River to what was to be their new home.

Olson, Niemann and others lugged the wooden crates ashore, directed by Dianne Hutchison, and set them away from the boats, facing the smorgasbord of brush extending into the delta. Though she was anxious for a look at the calves -- had they, too, suffered a bone injury? -- she did not want humans to be their first sight upon release.

The crate doors were removed, the volunteers stepped back and everyone froze, watching and waiting. Ten seconds. Thirty. Dianne's hands clenched, released, clenched, released, eyes darting from one crate to the next. At the minute mark, a brownish-red nose poked forth from a blonde wood crate. One of the Glenn Highway twins did what moose do -- ambled to a branch, clamped on and started chewing.

Its sibling soon did the same, so intent on sampling the culinary offerings of its new surroundings that it ignored the chattering of the humans and their whirring and clicking cameras.

Tense minutes passed without an appearance of the smaller Cordova female.

Finally, she, too, exited her crate, eliciting a new round of tears from Dianne and possibly a few of the moose federation volunteers, who tried to be a little more stoic about it. They watched the calves eat for while, then loaded the crates and themselves back onto the boats. As they pulled away, the Cordova female ambled to the riverbank to watch the departure.

That was the last time she was seen. Eyak personnel, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, flew over the delta once a month all fall 2013 and winter 2014 to track the calves via their radio collars. John Whissel, director of the Eyak Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, said she wasn't found after their first flight.

The other two did better. "They're not just alive, they're fat and happy," Whissel said.

"Moose survival increases vastly on an exponential curve. Young calves have a survival rate of just under 50 percent. By the time they make it through that first year, their survival rate is 90-something percent. We're calling May their birthday, at which time science tells us if they made it that far, they should be fine," Whissel said.

‘Not an isolated incident’

Tony Kavalok, an assistant director at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Palmer, said he understands the Hutchisons' frustration with the milk formula issue. Fish and Game wasn't withholding information, he said, adding that there simply wasn't definitive information to share. Rickets is a difficult problem. Milk formulas have worked in some cases but not others, he said. And the outcome seems to be affected by other factors, such as the calf's health before capture and what it eats beyond milk.

"This is not an isolated incident with the moose federation," Kavalok said. "The vets have been extremely frustrated with what appears to be a lack of … good scientific information on this. It's complicated enough that we don't have the answer on it, quite frankly. Nor does the Anchorage Zoo or any other facility or entity that we know of.

"Bob and Dianne Hutchison are very, very interested in solving this problem, not only for their sake and AMF's sake, but for the sake of all facilities that end up raising young, orphaned or infant moose calves."

Despite the setbacks, Olson said he's optimistic about the future of the calf-release program.

"It's amazing what this program teaches us. We've learned a lot about these moose. We know that the program every year becomes more and more efficient, better for the moose, better for volunteers," Olson said.

However, the moose federation finds itself short of funds. The Legislature initially provided $1.8 million for the federation's calf program and another $674,000 for its salvage work. But in 2013, the Legislature denied the federation's request of $300,000 for the calf-rescue program, $400,000 for the salvage program and $1.5 million to enhance moose habitat.

No money was allocated in the 2014 session, either.

"Should the state invest in these programs? Absolutely, because then they have some scratch in the game," Olson said. "The state has a role to play because, ultimately, they're the steward of the resource. We're just a tool in the process."

Corporate and private donors and the partnership with Eyak have helped fill the funding gap, but the moose federation's image has taken a hit over funding issues, the deaths of calves, personality conflicts and internal differences.

‘Absolute farce’

The Animal Planet show proved a double-edged sword. It got the moose federation new exposure, Olson said, but not necessarily in a light the organization would have preferred. Producers were more interested in entertainment value, showing a rookie volunteer trying to wrestle a caribou to prove his mettle before being allowed to capture moose calves. In another scene, Wild Mike and a friend decide to arm themselves and camp out near the calf pens to protect the moose against a wolf thought to be in the area, bringing a live chicken along in the truck to be dispatched and eaten around the campfire.

"The TV program was just an absolute farce. They lied to us, they used us," Bob Hutchison said. "Dianne and I probably talked to them a total of two to three hours, about all kinds of scientific stuff. The only thing they used was a bit about the wolf thing, but they took it way too far, and it got stupid."

The producers kept pushing for dramatics, Olson said.

"They wanted us to pick fights with everybody. They wanted us to have conflicts with troopers and Fish and Game and DNR. I kept telling them, 'No,' " Olson said. "…They just wanted to put in too many situations that were fighting and stressful. It would not have boded well for our permits."

Alaska Moose Mamas

In a move to rebrand itself, the moose federation board decided in the summer of 2014 to create a new nonprofit, Alaska Moose Mamas, to take over the calf-rearing program.

"We came to the realization that the best rebranding option is to put it in a maternal atmosphere," Olson said.

Dana DeBernardi, who had been working with moose federation on marketing, was tapped to be executive director of Alaska Moose Mamas.

"When I started learning it and digging deep on what this means to our state, it sucked me in, and it became my cause. The importance of what the moose federation is doing ... is amazing," DeBernardi said.

Olson said DeBernardi provides a better face than his for the calf program.

"What you'll see with these Moose Mamas is a maternal perspective, as mothers that are looking to help these little calves. You've got to admit, it's a little more convincing," said Olson, who described himself as a 6-foot-6 Viking.

The Hutchisons are no longer involved with the calf program, departing in midsummer amid the creation of the Moose Mamas. They were pleased that the testing they'd done early in the summer showed the two calves raised and released in 2014 were not showing signs of rickets.

But they were not pleased with the new direction of the calf program during the change to Moose Mamas. Bob said that he and Dianne went back periodically that summer to check on the calves and said they saw a "revolving door" of new volunteers at the calf pens.

"Petting them, feeding them. It's a petting zoo. Campers come on the weekend and come and play. Kids were in the moose pens playing with the moose calves. These calves are becoming habituated to people, they're going to have absolutely no fear of people," he said.

DeBernardi contracted with a new vet, Michelle Oakley, to oversee the calves.

Oakley is no stranger to reality TV. She's the star of Nat Geo Wild's "Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet." Bob said that he doesn't doubt Oakley's veterinary qualifications, but pointed out she's not located near Willow (her practice is based in Whitehorse) and only comes to check the calves periodically.

"We had interest in the calves. We had no other interest in AMF as far as an organization. We supported some of the things they did -- for example, habitat enhancement. But our thing was the calves," Bob said. "Oakley is a real vet but has no experience with calves being released into the wild. Dianne and I, this was our fourth year, and we're certainly still not experts by this point, but by immersion we have learned a lot.

"She's not a local veterinarian, she can't keep her fingers on it."

DeBernardi sings Oakley's praises, especially with a successful release of the calves on the Copper River Delta at the end of the summer.

"She just made me so confident with her knowledge and professionalism. She made everything so smooth," DeBernardi said.

Alaska Moose Mamas is trying to establish its own image, separate from the moose federation.

DeBernardi said that some volunteers stayed on through the change, while others were recruited. DeBernardi disputes the Hutchisons' description of a petting zoo, saying she limits people's interaction with the calves and wants those who will be directly feeding and caring for them to have a biology background, be studying to be veterinarians or have similar qualifications. Anyone else who wants to be involved can sign up for a Moose Mama membership -- guys, too -- to get updates on how the calves are doing.

She'd like to attract new donors, diversify funding sources and to do more educational outreach.

Bob Hutchison has a less enthusiastic take. To him, it's the moose -- just the moose -- that are amazing.

"I think in the grand scheme of things, it's a reasonable project. It's never going to be a big deal. You're never going to change the dynamics of the moose population in Alaska with this program. But it's a nice way to show appreciation for the resource Alaska has," he said.

Jenny Neyman is editor, publisher and reporter for the Redoubt Reporter, published weekly in Soldotna. Reach her at jennyneyman@gmail.com.

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