Board seeks moose boost — Few solutions seen to declining browse habitat

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A Kenai Peninsula hunter testifies Friday to the Alaska Board of Game during its Southcentral Region meeting held Friday through Tuesday in Kenai.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A Kenai Peninsula hunter testifies Friday to the Alaska Board of Game during its Southcentral Region meeting held Friday through Tuesday in Kenai.

The Alaska Board of Game worked its way through the Kenai Peninsula portion of its agenda Tuesday, liberalizing hunting and trapping opportunities on moose, wolves and bears.

The following are measures regarding moose adopted at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • Proposal 143 — Modify the bag limit for moose to one bull per year with an antler spread of 50 inches or greater, or a spike or four brow tines on one side in Game Management Units 7 and 15. The season will stay the same — Aug. 10 to 17 for bow hunting and Aug. 20 to Sept. 20 for the general hunt. The requirement that antlers be sealed by a department representative within 10 days also is retained, except in the Placer River/Placer Creek permit hunt, which is open to retention of any bulls. The proposal also adds a definition of a spike as “antlers of a bull moose with only one tine on at least one side; male calves are not spike bulls.”
  • Proposal 147 was adopted, lowering the intensive management population objective for moose in Unit 15A from a range of 3,000 to 3,500 to a range of 2,000 to 2,900, and lowering the intensive management harvest objective for moose in 15A from a range of 180 to 350 to a range of 120 to 290. The proposal retains Fish and Game’s ability to conduct aerial shooting of wolves in Units 15A and 15C as a measure of predator control to benefit moose populations, although this has not been implemented since the board first OK’d aerial wolf kills at its meeting in 2011. This proposal also approves allowing Fish and Game to employ or contract with trappers to target wolves and increase their harvest within the established wolf-trapping season and related regulations, as another measure of predator control.
  • Proposal 148 reauthorizes the antlerless moose season in a portion of Unit 15C — the roughly 100-square-mile bench area around Homer.
  • Proposal 150 failed. It would have allowed the use of motorized vehicles to retrieve harvested moose meat during certain hours — 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and during the “dark of night” — in the Lower Kenai Controlled Use Area.
  • Proposal 151 failed. It would have reinstituted a closure of the Palmer Creek/Lower Resurrection Creek areas in Unit 7 to moose hunting. The area, near Hope, will remain open to moose hunting.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Thirty years ago, moose on the Kenai Peninsula were legendary for their size and abundance. Now, however, it appears increasingly likely that those historic days are, indeed, history, as land and wildlife managers wrestle with measures to boost the dwindled ungulate population.

In the halcyon days, the peninsula’s moose population was estimated at around 4,000. Nowadays, it’s far less than that. A recent census, conducted just a few weeks ago by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, estimates 1,600 moose in Game Management Unit 15A, covering 1,300 square miles of the northwestern Kenai Peninsula. That’s down from about 2,000 in 2008, and that, in turn, is about 40 percent less than census estimates in the 1990s. Just four moose were harvested by hunters in 15A last year, and just four the previous year, down from the once-typical 350 to 360 a year. That’s in part due to the smaller population, and in part due to decreased hunter participation after the Alaska Board of Game enacted stepped-up hunting restrictions in 2011 to protect the population.

The Board of Game met in Kenai from Friday through Tuesday to consider proposals covering Game Management Units in Southeast, Cordova, Kodiak, the Anchorage area and the Kenai Peninsula. Nine proposals were submitted regarding moose on the peninsula, aimed at finding a balance between bolstering the population with the hope of increasing hunter opportunity.

The proposed changes are largely incremental — measured tweaks to conditions and regulations, which, if results come as intended, would effect incremental changes to the population. But the biggest contributing factor to the decline in moose population is far more substantial, than incremental, in scale.

Moose are not werewolves, yet there is believed to be a silver-bullet solution to the most significant problem of their decline. What’s needed, say land and wildlife managers, is fire, but not just any fire. This would be the Goldilocks of wildland fire — hot enough to burn down to mineral soil but not too hot so as to burn out of control, widespread enough to regenerate tens of thousands of acres of forest that has matured beyond the point of providing good moose browse, yet not so big that it poses too big a threat to human health, habitation, development and transportation, and occurring under just the right conditions and timing so as to not overtax available firefighting resources.

That solution is proving to be as mythical as werewolves.

“The Kenai has had harvest well in excess of 1,200 moose alone, historically, and you’re going to hear from a lot of folks who have been here a long time and remember the good old days and want those days back,” said Ted Spraker, chair of the Board of Game and retired Kenai-area Fish and Game wildlife biologist, in starting off the meeting Friday.

The public listens to the proceedings under taxidermy displays at the Kenai Chamber and Visitors Center.

The public listens to the proceedings under taxidermy displays at the Kenai Chamber and Visitors Center.

Trend toward  low

Those days may never come, at least not reminiscent of the highest spikes in the peninsula’s moose populations, because those populations resulted from ideal circumstances that no longer exist. Kenai Peninsula forests provide the best moose browse when they’re young — with lots of tender birch and willow saplings on which to munch. Fire provides the most efficient means of regenerating new and young growth that sustains moose. In 1947, about 300,000 acres of the western Kenai Peninsula burned in a wildfire, followed by about 86,000 acres in 1969. Forest regeneration hits its peak of providing good moose habitat about 15 to 20 years post fire, and moose numbers in 15A rose accordingly, seeing spikes in the 1960s following the 1947 burn, and the 1980s following the 1969 burn.

“The reason Kenai moose became so famous — they were initially thought to be their own separate species because they were so large — is because, through a series of fires, they had probably the best possible summer range and winter range for a certain amount of time,” said Thomas McDonough, a Homer-based wildlife biologist for Fish and Game.

As the forest matures, quality moose habitat declines. Studies show moose densities tend to return to pre-fire levels about 40 years after a fire. Accordingly, moose numbers dipped in the 1970s and have been declining since the 1980s. It’s now been more than 40 years since a significant wildfire occurred in 15A.

“Once the growth from the 1969 burn released, there was all kinds of food available for moose and we saw the dramatic increase. That’s the increase, I think, that a lot of the people who spent the last 40, 50 years on the Kenai lived through. So I can totally understand some of the concern that you’ve been hearing from the public all week about where moose used to be in 15A, because they were significantly higher numbers at one time,” said Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game. “… So while the low moose population in 15A is a major concern, in the absence of a large-scale fire it was predicted that as far back as the 1980s that we would see the decline that we have experienced there.”

Lack of adequate browse can cause a slew of problems — low body fat with which to survive winter, lower likelihood of successful reproduction and producing calves that are born late and with lower birth weight, meaning they are less likely to survive.

“We found animals in 15A, many of them had very poor musculature, which is an indication they’ve been metabolizing protein as well as reducing their body fat,” McDonough said of moose surveys being done in a three-year project in the spring and fall. “… Many 15A cows in the fall had relatively poor musculature, indicating even though they should be at peak of condition they might not have been fully able to recover from the previous winter conditions.”

On top of the issues of poor health seen in poor habitat are all the other causes of moose mortalities, the effects of which can become amplified upon a population lacking adequate browse.

Deep-snow winters are difficult on moose, especially calves, and the winter of 2011-12 was a record-breaker in that respect.

“When snow typically reaches around chest-high of a calf, about 36 inches or 90 centimeters, it severely restricts movement, it reduces food availability and occurs at a time of year when moose are typically losing their body reserves. Past studies have seen substantial calf mortality when snow depth reached 90 centimeters for several months,” McDonough said.

Predators also are an issue, with brown bears being the heaviest predators of moose calves on the peninsula, followed by wolves, black bears and a few others. Hunting can take its toll, too, though restrictions enacted by the Board of Game in 2011 instituted a few years’ reprieve from most hunting pressure on the peninsula. But humans are still a large cause of moose mortality, even when not hunting. Upward of 200 to 250 moose a year are killed in motor-vehicle collisions on the Kenai Peninsula, and others die in defense-of-life-and-property shootings, from eating plastic bags and other indigestible items while rummaging through garbage, and as the result of other negative run-ins with people.

The road-kill problem is particularly thorny, as it doesn’t seem to decrease as the moose population decreases, likely because more moose are hanging out around roads. The phenomenon stands to reason, Selinger said, as disturbances to vegetation tend to chum in moose to fresh browse. Clearing along right of ways or clearing lots for development generate slash piles for moose to pick through, as well as new browse growing up after the clearing.

“There are disturbances, and what food that they have occurs more in those areas (along roads and development). I believe that is the reason why they have shifted in to town,” Selinger said, noting public testimony of increased moose sightings in town, and particularly in North Kenai recently along road-clearing work. “I would agree that more of our moose population is closer to our settlements and our roadways. Traffic volumes have increased, as well.”

Too hot to handle?

Underpinning all these factors is the continued maturation of the forest in 15A, and its continued reduction in moose habitat. But wide-scale fire isn’t a likely solution. The state of Alaska only manages a fraction of the land in 15A. About 80 percent of the area is within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, under the purview of the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the remaining about 20 percent includes borough and city lands, native association, private and state lands.

The state lands in 15A are too close to habitation to conduct a prescribed burn to improve moose habitat. And the refuge’s approach to fire sparked a lengthy conversation at Friday’s Board of Game meeting.

Refuge representatives Larry Bell, assistant regional director for the office of external affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager, agree that fire is the most effective means of regenerating good moose habitat on the Kenai.

“I want to make it clear that we are in lockstep with our department colleagues, with folks that recognize the importance of fire for moose and moose population dynamics,” Loranger said.

The fire of 1969, in particular, was fabulously effective at improving habitat. However, it was also of a scale and threat level that fire managers would work very hard to suppress were it to happen today, Loranger said.

“That fire back in 1969 scared the dickens out of people. It was the most expensive suppression effort to date of a wildland fire,” he said.

Fire, where possible, is the refuge’s preferred approach to improving moose habitat, Bell said. Decades ago mechanical manipulation of lands was more heavily used — cutting down and chewing up swaths of backcountry forest. But such efforts are expensive and not nearly as effective as fire.

“The refuge has shifted from mechanical manipulation to fire, planned and unplanned. We’ve learned over the years that conducting prescribed burns is extremely challenging, and we’ve had our greatest success in managing backcountry fires for resource benefits where and when we can safely do so. Our opportunities to do both are becoming increasingly challenging as the Kenai’s population grows and new development occurs in the wildland-urban interface,” Bell said.

The refuge occasionally conducts prescribed burns to clear targeted areas for regrowth, but it is increasingly difficult to find conducive conditions, Loranger said.

“First and foremost in our considerations is always public and firefighter safety,” he said. “… Depending on time of the year, the current weather conditions, drought conditions versus not, predicted weather, where the wind is blowing to, the availability of resources is a very important consideration — if there’s a lot of fires in Southcentral and resources are spread thin, that is going to affect our decision. All of those considerations will affect our decisions.”

More common than prescribed burns is managing unplanned ignitions — those accidentally set by people or sparked by lightning. The refuge’s de facto approach to these wildfires is to let them burn, Loranger said, but there are still all those many caveats. If a fire is too close to human development, if its smoke causes adverse health impacts, if too-dry conditions risk runaway growth, if available firefighting resources are limited, if it’s impeding transportation — particularly if smoke affects air traffic at Ted Stevens International Airport. It’s a complicated calculus, and in some cases final authority rests beyond refuge managers.

“By and large many of those decisions are not of the Fish and Wildlife Service but of the greater fire community, including the state of Alaska and municipalities,” Bell said.

Some speakers Friday placed responsibility for the declining habitat, and resultant declining moose, at the feet of the refuge.

“(The moose population in 15A has) gone down to about 1,600 moose, and the harvest is gone — four moose last year, four moose the year before. That’s going to be on the refuge. The refuge manages 79 percent of 15A,” Spraker said. “… I just want to make it very clear that this board is absolutely painted into a corner on things that we can legally do to try to help this moose population. We want habitat, that’s number one, we really want to see the habitat.”

“We need to do everything we can. We need to keep the pressure up on the refuge. It might be a futile experience but we can’t let up on them,” said Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

Board member Nate Turner, while recognizing the refuge’s 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan that incorporates public input into the refuge’s management goals and strategies, said that he still sees a lack of responsiveness.

“That is something that the people have expressed strongly here is that they don’t feel heard and some of the results or actions they want to see aren’t happening, and they don’t want to wait for the next CCP to voice an opinion that has no power either, necessarily,” he said.

Loranger said he appreciated the comments.

“We strive, as you do, to do the best we can to balance those various mandates to meet the public needs. Public needs are very diverse and we try to provide a little bit for everybody. I’m sure we can’t always provide everything everybody would like but we certainly hope that we’re meeting the bulk of what the American people want,” he said.

On the Kenai refuge, he said they are working toward improving moose habitat, with some mechanical clearing projects and a larger strategy of working with other agencies to manage wildfires for resource benefit. In the last 15 years the refuge has managed about 43,000 acres worth of wildfire, though most of the fires in the last two decades on the peninsula occurred in Units 15B and C, south of Skilak Lake, in the Caribou Hills and south of Tustumena Lake.

Moose populations have fared better in those areas than in northern, fire-starved 15A. A recent estimate of moose in 15C found 3,200 animals, up from a 2,900 estimate in 2010, and healthy moose densities from 2.8 per square mile to 3.5 or 4 per square mile in the smaller winter range (compared to 1.2 per square mile in 15A). Moose in 15C have also been found to be in better condition than those in 15A, and a low bull-to-cow ratio that plagued the 15C population in recent years seems to be improving. A 2010 composition count of 15C moose estimated nine bulls per 100 cows, and a 2012 survey found a ratio of 22 bulls to 100 cows.

“Those things are happening and they’re going to continue to happen, and they’ve been small scale but it’s what we’ve been able to accomplish and we’ve been making some progress,” Loranger said. “… In order to do it safely, in order to have additional decisions space, this is where a strategic and comprehensive effort, a multipartner public-private partnership needs to come in, in order to set the stage for future successes in 15A, and that’s what we’re working towards right now.”

But one large, silver-bullet fire is not part of the plan.

“The only thing that will create that amount of habitat on the landscape is large fires on the landscape, and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to allow that to happen. So that’s just reality and that’s just being honest with the public,” Loranger said.

So what does that leave the Board of Game to do for moose, particularly in 15A? Predator control seems to be the most popular proposed solution. Though again, that isn’t likely to happen on refuge lands. In 2011 the board approved aerial shooting of wolves by Fish and Game in Units 15A and C, but the refuge does not allow the practice on its lands, leaving very little room in 15A in which to conduct the kills. (Fish and Game hasn’t conducted any aerial wolf shootings since the board enacted the measure, waiting instead for results of wolf and moose census counts.)

Spraker asked if the refuge would be willing to work with the Fish and Game to help it achieve its predator control goals, if passed by the board. For instance, allowing the department to trap wolves on the refuge to be removed and shot off refuge lands, or to allow baiting of brown bears on the refuge. No and no, Loranger said.

“Those are two things that I’d hope the refuge would cooperate with the state, and not overharvest any of the predators but reduce some of the predator impact in 15A to try to rebuild this population,” Spraker said.

“If we don’t address the decline of moose in 15A, if we never get any habitat done on any meaningful scale, then we’re going to have so few moose left in 15A because of the number of predators compared to the number of prey. We need to do something to stop the decline,” Spraker said.

Several hunters and trappers spoke in favor of proposed predator-control measures, including liberalized opportunities to harvest brown bears and wolves, noting that they still see areas of good moose browse in the backcountry, but a much higher sign of predators, suggesting to them that moose are being driven away from what good habitat does exist.

“Forty percent of moose calves are lost in the first six weeks of life. Brown bears take moose calves. When we’re not replacing breeders with calves getting recruited (into the population), we’re going to reach a point where we’re going to be sunk here, and habitat isn’t going to matter at that point,” said Bob Ermold, vice chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee. “So we need to do something to stop the bleeding. I think there’s a predation issue that leads to it. We’ve got a huge, healthy population of brown bear, more than a harvestable surplus. (If that doesn’t change) we’re going to find ourselves in a predator pit and were going to lose.”

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1 Comment

Filed under hunting, moose, wildlife

One response to “Board seeks moose boost — Few solutions seen to declining browse habitat

  1. Deborah Thomas

    Hundreds of moose are killed on Alaska roadways every single year, HUNDREDS. When they are near the roadways when the snow makes it tough for them to travel, people know this, but do not slow down. So how do we boost moose population? Kill more predators? That’s always the first measure the BOG and the “sportsmen” look at. If they’re finding weaker than normal moose these days, could it have anything to do with the fact that they’ve been over-hunted by HUMANS for DECADES, at least, and the human hunter ALWAYS kills the biggest, best, strongest animals? Forage my a__.

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