Editor’s note: The is part two of a story on a study looking into a link between noise and moose stress on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Please see last week’s story for more information on the study.
By Joseph Robertia
Tim Mullet, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is currently involved in a two-year study of the relationship between sound and moose on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to recording and mapping sounds, Mullet is collecting moose poop and having it analyzed for levels of glucocorticoids — hormones that are indicators of animal stress — in an attempt to determine whether exposure to human-made noise causes such stress in local moose.
Mullet has been giving presentations about his study at various venues in an attempt to inform the public, and to involve local snowmachine clubs and users, since snowmachine noise is one of the major sounds being evaluated in the study. Many who have heard about the study are not enthusiastic about it.
“I’ve heard his presentation twice and I hate to be critical, because I know he’s working hard and trying to do a good job to get his Ph.D., but I think he’s got a bad project. This moose dropping thing is, well, it’s a load of poop,” said Ted Spraker, who retired in 2002 after 28 years of state service with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Spraker said he fears that when Mullet’s study is complete, it will merely reveal information that is already known about sound given off by snowmachines.
“When everything is said and done, he’ll learn that snowmachines make noise, and on a clear day you can hear them a mile away. It’s not new ground that is being turned,” he said.
“And if their (the refuge’s) intent is to use this study to do away with snowmachines, they’re barking up the
wrong tree,” Spraker said. “They already tried that up in Denali National Park a few years ago when they compared moose droppings there to poop collected from Anchorage, but ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) prevented it, and if they couldn’t get rid of them in a national park, they’re not going to get rid of them on a refuge.”
Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said he, too, is apprehensive about how the findings of Mullet’s project may be used, particularly since many people use snowmachines for trapping, ptarmigan hunting and other fish-and-game harvesting interests.
“I think if you’re looking for an outcome, you’re going to find it,” he said. “So I think snowmachiners are worried this study will be used to limit our access.”
Crawford said this doesn’t mean he doesn’t support the refuge’s efforts to balance recreational opportunities in congressionally designated wilderness areas, within which the refuge is tasked with retaining outstanding opportunities for solitude.
“I’m all for wilderness areas. I think they’re a great thing, but there are already many places on the refuge where you can’t snowmachine — like the Swan Lake Canoe Trails area and Skilak Loop — where people can go all winter, or all year,” he said.
By comparison, the refuge areas open to snowmachining, which primarily include the Caribou Hills and Mystery Creek areas, aren’t open all winter.
“They open Dec. 1, so in a good snow year, you could potentially get up there for four months, that’s it,” he said.
Like Spraker, Crawford said he doubted the ability of the study to conclude that snowmachines are the primary cause of stress to moose in these areas.
“They’re looking for an association between stress and snowmachines, but if they find stress in the moose, how do they know it was caused by snowmachines in that area, and not by wolves chasing them, or from the moose being starving? There are too many variables that could be causing that stress,” Crawford said.
Steve Attleson, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club, said he took issue with the idea that snowmachines could be causing stress to moose.
“I’ve ridden snowmachines in and out of the refuge for the last 30 years, and in my experience, the moose don’t seem to care about them. They’re like the moose that hang out near the highway, they’re totally used to us,” he said.
Attleson said he also doubted that moose in the Caribou Hills were stressed by snowmachines because the portion of the snowmachining area that falls on the refuge is primarily above tree line, where moose rarely travel in winter. And in tree-line elevations of the refuge, snowmachiners don’t ride as much and typically give moose a wide berth.
“From everything I’ve seen, riders always give the moose the right of way or try to avoid them,” he said.
Rather than stressing moose, Attleson said he believed the animals might even be benefiting from snowmachine use in and out of the refuge.
“It gives them a hard-packed trail,” he said. “And if I was a moose tromping through deep snow, I think I’d appreciate an easier-going trail.”
Spraker said that, rather than focusing on if and how the noise generated by snowmachines is affecting moose, he would have liked to have seen the refuge develop a better moose-related project for Mullet to work on.
“When I was a wildlife manager, I always evaluated projects based on their usefulness, so I’m disappointed in the direction of this research,” he said. “Habitat decline and predator control are far more important issues related to moose, so I wish they had done something more worthwhile, and with more management implications, with their time and taxpayer’s money.”
Despite the detractors, John Morton, a supervisory biologist at the refuge, said he believes the project will provide much-needed ecological information.
“A lot of snowmachiners think we have a hidden agenda, but it’s not really that hidden. We’re studying them because we think there might be a problem,” he said.
Morton added that Mullet was brought in, rather than the research being conducted in house by refuge staff, partially so no accusations of nepotism could be made.
“We deliberately brought in a grad student so there would be no bias. They’re governed by a body of professors, so it’s very objective,” Morton said. “Whatever he finds, whether it be no impact or significant impact, he’ll write it up and then we’ll decide what the next step is, and if there should be any change made, it’ll be a public process.”