By Jenny Neyman
Salmon may be king of the waterways of the Kenai Peninsula, but on land, the much larger, leggier moose reigns in importance. Prized as a food source by both human hunters and animal predators, dodged (not always successfully) by motorists, dreaded by gardeners, photographed to the point of cliché — it’s as hard to miss moose as it is to miss the value of moose. And yet, they are not nearly as ubiquitous as they once were.
The halcyon, high moose-density days of 30 years ago may be gone, but moose certainly aren’t forgotten. As the Board of Game meets in Anchorage this weekend, it will likely hear considerable concerned testimony about moose on the peninsula, including predator control proposals that would authorize aerial wolf kills in Game Management Units 15A and 15C.
No matter how disparate the points of view that will be expressed, they will share one aim: Addressing the declined moose population on the peninsula.
But what should be done, where, when and how, are much more difficult targets.
A gnawing problem
Ask a longtime Kenai Peninsula hunter about moose and the answer will be that there aren’t as many as there once were, likely followed by a story of how good moose hunting used to be, when the biggest challenge wasn’t finding a legal bull to shoot, it was picking which of several available options to aim at.
Exact population numbers aren’t available, because counting moose is a time-consuming, costly and challenging task. Current estimates indicate a population of about 2,900 moose in Unit 15C, or about 2.5 moose per square mile, “and that’s pretty high density in Alaska,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
However, the composition of the 15C, southern-peninsula population isn’t optimal. A survey of the Caribou Hills and Homer bench in 2011 showed 14 bulls and 26 calves per 100 cows. The year before was nine bulls and 20 calves per 100 cows.
The danger of low bull-to-cow ratios — aside from meaning there are less bulls for hunters — is that cows might not breed during their first estrus cycle, or maybe not at all. Even if cows breed in a second estrus cycle, those calves will be born later and have a lesser chance of survival.
“We have had indications while out flying surveys that it’s possible there are cows going into estrus and there aren’t enough bulls out there and they aren’t getting bred,” Selinger said.
In 15A, the northwestern peninsula, overall population numbers have declined and composition has been more of a mixed bag. The bull-to-cow ratio in the eastern section of 15A was surveyed at about 38 bulls and 17 calves per 100 cows in 2010. In 2005 that area showed 30 bulls and 14 calves per 100 cows, and in 2003 it was 38 bulls and 20 calves per 100 cows. The northwestern section of 15A showed ratios of seven bulls and 31 calves per 100 cows in 2010, 11 bulls and 21 calves in 2008, and 11 bulls and 13 calves in 2006.
The current population estimate in 15A is about 2,000 moose, half of that from the 1980s when an estimated 4,000 moose roamed the area. The Department of Fish and Game designated the moose population in 15A and 15C in intensive management in 2000, with a population objective of 3,000 to 3,500 moose and harvest objective of 180 to 350 moose in 15A, and a population objective of 2,500 to 3,500 with a harvest objective of 200 to 350 in 15C.
“In 15A since the intensive management objectives were put in place, they’ve always been below the population objective. There’s been one year in the last 13 that they were above harvest objectives, but every other year it’s been below,” Selinger said. “In Unit 15C, (from 2000 through 2010) we have always been above both harvest and population.”
In the March 2011 Board of Game meeting, the Department of Fish and Game presented a proposal seeking to lower the intensive management objectives for 15A, stating that the numbers were set too high, based on a time when moose habitat was better than it has been in decades, or may ever be again. The board chose to retain the current objectives, and instructed the department to come up with a proposal for conducting wolf predator control in Units 15A and 15C, as a way to boost the chances of calves surviving to become breeding adults. The board also instituted two-year hunting restrictions in 15A and 15C, meant to lessen the amount of bull mortalities. Hunters grudgingly accepted the restrictions, for the good of the moose population.
“This is a pretty extreme situation. I think when you hit intensive management status that’s pretty significant. When you’ve been in intensive management status for 11 years and during that 11 years you’ve continued to experience decline the entire time, that’s a pretty severe situation. And so we feel that it needs a multipronged approach to addressing the issue,” said Bob Ermold, a hunter and member of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
Conservationists opposed the call for predator control over reducing the intensive management objectives.
“(Fish and Game’s feasibility assessment report for wolf predator control) states that the goal of the wolf control program is to ‘reduce calf mortality to reverse the long-term decline of the bull:cow ratio and increase calf survival.’ However, (the report) also clearly recognizes that habitat is limiting the population and includes data presenting poor nutritional condition (of moose). Further, the original habitat plan for this program states that bull:cow ratios have been stable since the 1990s. Reducing calf mortality through control of wolves, in the hopes of improving the bull:cow ratio when neither low bull:cow ratios, nor excessive calf predation, have been identified as limiting factors (of the moose population) is scientifically unfounded,” wrote Theresa Fiorino, Alaska representative of Defenders of Wildlife and representing the Alaska Center for the Environment and Alaska Wildlife Alliance.
The first step in addressing moose numbers on the peninsula is determining why they have declined. Moose calves — and, to a lesser extent, adults — are an important food source for peninsula predators, primarily black bears, brown bears and wolves. Prior to hunting restrictions put in place in 2011, human hunters have harvested an average of 400 moose a year. And humans are the cause of an average of about 224 more moose deaths each year on the peninsula in the form of vehicle collisions.
Browsing for better habitat
Yet of all these factors causing moose mortalities, habitat is thought to play an even bigger role in sustaining — or not — the population.
Staffing, budgets and time being limited, Fish and Game’s data on peninsula moose is likewise limited, but what data does exist points to signs that poor habitat is negatively impacting the moose population, Selinger said.
“We have habitat issues in 15A. Everybody admits we have habitat issues in 15A,” he said.
Healthy moose populations with plenty of nutritious browse tend to have at least an 80 percent pregnancy rate and 20 percent twinning rate, meaning that 80 percent of moose cows in a year will be pregnant and have a 20 percent chance of birthing two calves. A twinning survey conducted in 2011 showed about a 30 percent twinning rate in 15C and 16 percent twinning rate in 15A.
A moose collaring project done in March 2007 showed that moose captured on the Sterling flats — with an estimated density of 1.3 moose per square mile and limited quality browse — had a 73 percent pregnancy rate, while moose captured around Juneau Lake in the Kenai Mountains — with a lower, one per-square-mile density of moose in the area to compete for browse — had a 100 percent pregnancy rate, Selinger said. The Juneau Lake-area moose also showed an average of 2 centimeters more rump fat, another indicator of health, than the moose tested on the flats, Selinger said.
“When the adult pregnancy rate is below 80 percent for cows you’re looking at nutritional issues, and when twinning rates fall below 20 percent it’s also a sign you’re nutritionally limited,” he said.
Fire is the best generator of quality habitat for moose. Moose get the most energy out of eating birch and willow saplings growing from bare soil. Regrowth on trees that are cut back — for instance, previously browsed by moose or trimmed by mechanical means — can be edible but not as nutritious as fresh new saplings would be.
Wildfires in 1947 and 1967 burned about 300,000 acres and 90,000 acres, respectively, in Unit 15A. It takes four to five years for vegetation regrowth to get to the point of being good moose browse, with a sweet spot of about 20 years post-fire being quality moose browse. After that the trees mature too much or have been browsed so much that they lack their nutritional luster.
Peaks in the peninsula’s moose population over the years have been tied to wildfires. In the early 1970s the moose population in 15A was depressed, a combination of the 1969 fire and harsh, deep-snow winters. In the 1980s, when regrowth of the vegetation was hitting its peak for moose browse, the population hit about seven moose per square mile, Selinger said.
“Once that vegetation started growing, that moose population took off. That’s what everybody who’s been here for the last 20, 30 years remembers is the high moose numbers after that,” Selinger said.
But while there have been burns in area 15C in recent years, there hasn’t been a significant wildfire in 15A in more than 40 years. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, covering about 80 percent of the land in 15A and 30 percent in 15C, has done some moose habitat enhancement in recent years in the Skilak Lake area — which is closed to moose hunting. Beyond that, for the vast majority of 15A, there haven’t been any significant enhancements to moose habitat since the 1969 burn.
If the moose population in 15A is struggling from a lack of quality habitat, and fire is a good generator of nutritional moose browse, the easy solution would seem to be initiating a program of controlled burns to generate that regrowth of moose browse.
“The long-term fix for 15A is we have to get the refuge involved in habitat enhancement. If we ever expect the moose population to build, we have to do that,” said Ted Spraker, vice chair of the Alaska Board of Game and a retired Fish and Game biologist on the Kenai.
But starting controlled burns or letting wildfires go without extinguishing them becomes difficult when considering the other creatures of importance in the area — humans.
“People generally don’t like smoke, and another compounding factor is it’s real close to Anchorage, and if there’s a lot of smoke in the air it could inhibit traffic coming out of the (Ted Stevens International) Airport,” Selinger said.
The small amount of state- and borough-owned land in 15A is too close to development to be desirable to burn. There is some Native-owned land on the northern peninsula that may be suitable for controlled burns, but there is no definite plan yet in the works for that. Selinger said he’d like to see a fuels reduction program cutting a firebreak from Captain Cook State Park north of Nikiski southeast to Sterling as a way to make fire more feasible beyond that boundary.
“The difficulties that we face now is we’ve got infrastructure on the refuge, with the gas and oil development, the human population has expanded greatly and lightning strikes, though they’re increasing in recent years, aren’t very frequent out there. If a fire does start we currently don’t have much of a firebreak to speak of between civilization and the backcountry,” he said.
Even if a fire were sparked today, it would be years before moose could browse the benefits of a burn. And a fire-based habitat enhancement project appears to still be relegated to the hazy horizon. Steve Miller, deputy refuge manager, said that the refuge is talking about habitat enhancement, though a definite plan has not yet been fleshed out. Selinger said that Fish and Game, the Alaska Division of Forestry, Native landholders and the refuge are going to work together to consider enhancement projects. But again, no date or specific plan has been announced.
A fire for action
The question then becomes, if the most agreed-upon solution to improving the long-term health of the moose population in 15A — improving habitat — isn’t an easy, immediate fix, what can or should be done?
Some say, nothing. If habitat is the issue, then habitat should be the solution, not predator control, such as the proposals permitting aerial wolf kills.
“These proposals cite the need to reduce wolf populations because of a recent decline in moose populations on the Kenai Peninsula. Even though the Department of Fish and Game presented biological evidence at the March (2011) Board of Game meeting that showed predation was not the cause of moose population declines. If wolves are not the cause of moose declines, then there is no reason to kill them,” said Brian Bailey, of Soldotna, in public comments submitted to the Board of Game as a member of the Defenders of Wildlife organization. “If the Board of Game truly wants moose numbers to rise on the Kenai, then habitat management is the best solution. Prescribed burn management could create a significant amount of moose habitat that would have a positive influence on the moose population. Aerial wolf hunting is not a solution, it just creates more upheaval and uproar from thousands of people in Alaska and the rest of the country who wonder what decision-making processes go into Board of Game proposals.”
The refuge, as well, does not support the wolf control proposals — meaning that, if passed, the proposed wolf-control measures will only be allowed on lands outside the refuge.
“In the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service’s professional opinion, available scientific information calls into
question both the need for predator control on the Kenai Peninsula and certainly whether it would be effective in increasing moose populations,” wrote Andy Loranger, refuge manager. “We concur with (Fish and Game) that habitat is the major factor influencing moose populations on the northern Kenai Peninsula. This relationship has been well documented in the scientific literature, and the recent moose population decline in GMU 15A was predicted in the absence of fire.”
Others say that moose mortalities need to be addressed. The Board of Game already approved two-year moose hunting restrictions on the peninsula that took effect in 2011. The purpose was to improve the bull-to-cow ratio by reducing the number of bulls harvested by hunters. That objective seems to be successful this year.
Typically, about 400 moose are harvested on the peninsula each year, but in 2011 there were only 35. And with the hunting restriction, the bull-to-cow ratio in eastern 15A rebounded to an estimated 60 bulls per 100 cows in eastern 15A, and 20 bulls to 100 cows in northwestern 15A.
Loranger, in the refuge’s submitted comments, said the results of the hunting restrictions are addressing the composition problems, without need of predator control.
“New harvest regulations, implemented in 2011, are now in place to improve bull:cow ratios in the short term and are expected to preclude or reverse negative impacts of a skewed sex ratio on moose productivity over the 2011 and 2012 hunting seasons,” he said.
Hunters, however, aren’t thrilled with the restrictions, and some call for measures to be taken beyond them accepting much lower chances of harvesting a moose on the peninsula.
“The public’s willing to sacrifice two years to increase the number of bulls, but they’re giving up two years of hunting on the Kenai, and they want to see some changes,” Spraker said. “They do not want to sit back and say, ‘We’ll hunt for a couple of years and then we’ll not hunt for a couple years and let the bulls build back again, and then we’ll hunt for a couple years.’ They want to see something that’s proactive with the department.”
“There’s also the fear that if our (moose) numbers get so low, to a critical point, and then you have a real severe winter, which kills moose off as well, we might hit a point where it could take 20 to 30 years to recover the population,” Ermold said. “So we’re feeling like we need an intensive response here, a multipronged approach to really jump-start the population.”
That multipronged approach should include predator control, he said.
The most recent data indicates that, of the 46 percent calf mortality noted in a sample size of 50 moose, about 34 percent died from black bear predation, 6 percent from wolves, 6 percent from brown bears and 2 percent from unspecified predation.
The Board of Game has already increased black bear hunting opportunities. The Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee also has a proposal on the docket for the weekend’s Board of Game meeting seeking to change the brown bear hunt on the peninsula by replacing the current limited-permit drawing hunt with an open registration hunt, with the intention of increasing hunter opportunity to harvest brown bears on the peninsula.
“Every time we have a meeting the public wants to talk about reducing brown bear numbers, and as elected members of the community, we hear ya and we’re going to respond to that and this was our response to come up with that proposal,” Ermold said.
The Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee also voted unanimously in support of the wolf control proposals.
“I think what our AC has arrived at is you lose a lot of calves in the first six to eight weeks of life to bears — black bears, primarily — and some to wolves. But once winter hits the bears are all denned up and the wolves have to feed all year-round. Granted, they may pick up a rabbit or two here and there, but when you’re talking about feeding the pack they’re surviving off of moose,” Ermold said. “Our stance as a group has been our moose numbers keep dropping and we want something done. When they (refuge managers) say, ‘We can’t do any fires.’ Well, we’re not happy with sitting back saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ We want something done.”
Trapping and hunting has not been adequate to impact the wolf population on the peninsula, Spraker said, especially with wolf trapping restrictions that were put in place on the refuge in the 1980s, such as requiring traps be checked every four days as opposed to seven and a wider boundaries around roads. Wolves re-established a population on the peninsula in the 1970s and have maintained a fairly stable population since. A wolf survey conducted in November 2011 accounts for a minimum estimated 143 to 158 wolves in Unit 15. About 40 wolves have been harvested a year on the peninsula, Selinger said.
“I think it’s past time that we address the impact of predation to stop the (moose population) decline, or at least slow down the decline. If you allow these populations to go lower and lower and lower, it just takes longer for it to ever come back,” Spraker said. “My concern with 15A is when you’re in a predator pit, which we are for sure in 15A, (the moose population) gets so low it just takes decades to bring it back. If we don’t do something with the predators, that’s where we’re headed.
“Predators are not regulators. People think they’re the ecological nature balancers — they’ve got this intact environment out there where the predators balance the prey with the habitat. That’s so far from being true. It sounds good and you hear a lot of people saying that, but wolves will eat the last moose in 15A if they can possibly do it,” he said.
Ermold acknowledges that aerial wolf control, in particular, stirs up controversy, but said he thinks it is an effective way of reducing the wolf population — particularly given the wolf-hunting regulations on the refuge — in order to reduce the moose calf mortality rate.
“When they think of shooting wolves from airplanes or helicopters it just makes their skin crawl. And I think the thing that people should keep in mind is this isn’t put in place as an opportunity to increase harvest for hunters. We don’t consider this hunting, by any means. We don’t consider it sporting. But it is a highly effective method of wolf removal and it’s put in place for a purpose. This isn’t about wolves, this is about moose. We’ve got a predation issue and here’s a highly effective method of accomplishing your objective,” Ermold said.
Opponents to the wolf control proposals question their potential efficiency, given that the refuge won’t allow aerial wolf shooting on its land, and question if the objective of increasing the moose population is obtainable. If moose habitat in 15A is limited, then increasing moose numbers could just overtax the available habitat carrying capacity.
“The record is clear that habitat, not predation, is currently limiting moose populations in Unit 15A. The record is also clear that the potential for moose populations to again reach historic levels is unlikely due in part to increasing human settlement on the peninsula. Further, as habitat is currently limiting, increasing the moose population could negatively affect population productivity,” Fiorino wrote in public comments submitted to the board. “… Due to constraints of land ownership, the plan could only be implemented on the (roughly 3 percent) of lands in the unit managed by the state. At the March 2011 meeting, (Fish and Game) biologists stated on the record that they did not believe that an aerial wolf control program would feasibly achieve the objective of increasing moose abundance in 15A due to the small scale at which it could be conducted.”
Selinger said that if predator control were approved and did result in an increase in moose, he’d like to see those animals be allocated to hunter harvest.
“We don’t want to grow the population in 15A at this point until we get habitat enhancement. There’s a lot of signs of nutritional stress in 15A for moose. In 15C, we probably don’t want to grow that population much either because at 2.5 moose per square mile, throughout most of Alaska that’s pretty high densities to try and maintain that,” he said.
Ermold and Spraker both said that they agree moose habitat in 15A is limited, but they don’t think the carrying capacity has yet been reached.
“With the refuge, since they are land managers, we’re begging them, ‘Hey, get some things going here and create some more habitat.’ But in our view, it’s everything — it’s habitat and predation. I think we need to address every prong of that, because we’re in dire straits here,” Ermold said.
Still others favor a wait-and-see approach. Wait and see if hunting restrictions recalibrate the bull:cow ratio enough that further measures aren’t necessary. Wait for Fish and Game to complete an extensive, two-year moose research project set to begin in March, that will show pregnancy rates, calving productivity, twinning rates, calf mortality rates, insights on animal movements and rutting group compositions. A brown bear population estimate, from a study conducted by the refuge, also is expected to be released later this year.
“Anytime you add a variable it’s going to add complexity to determine which one had the most impact. Right now we changed antler configuration for harvest. If we also start aerial killing of wolves it gets more difficult to tease out which had the impact — was it the fact that you didn’t harvest bulls and you have more bulls in your population, or is it the fact that you removed predators? It makes it more difficult,” Selinger said.
In the refuge’s comments, Loranger also requests that the board take a slower approach.
“Little or no scientific information is available on the role of multiple predators (wolves, brown bears, black bears), habitat conditions, disease, weather and highway mortality, or on the complex interactions and relationships between all of these factors, in influencing moose population dynamics on the Kenai Peninsula. Lack of critical baseline information will preclude an adequate quantitative assessment of ecological consequences of predator control (as well as an adequate assessment of the program’s effectiveness in meeting its stated objectives),” he said.
Spraker said he sees more immediacy in a situation that has been allowed to decline for far too long.
“From a retired wildlife biologist that worked on the Kenai for 24 years, I think we’re in really serious shape — serious as in bad shape,” he said.
The board meetings, scheduled to start Friday at the Hilton in Anchorage, are open to the public to listen and offer testimony. Spraker encouraged anyone interested to participate.
“I would really encourage people on either side to come to the board and testify because this is a huge issue that is basically going to write the history of moose on the Kenai. Either we’re going to start doing something or we’re going to sit back and watch this moose population go down to where there’s no hunting. This is a crossroad. If folks want to increase moose, step up and say so. If they don’t, step up and say that as well,” Spraker said.