By Jenny Neyman
As if moose on the Kenai Peninsula don’t have it tough enough.
Population numbers have declined over the past four decades, especially on the northwestern peninsula, with poor habitat conditions owing to a forest that has matured beyond optimal browse production. Hundreds are hit and killed each year by cars. Come fall, they are sought by human hunters. In spring, moose calves are preferred prey for bears and wolves.
And now, with a deep-snow winter dragging on into a crusty-snow spring, they face starvation.
The difficulty for moose in a harsh, snow-laden winter is two-fold: For one thing, it’s tough to get around. Deep snow can drive moose to take advantage of roads, parking lots and other human conveniences, which puts them at greater risk of being hit by cars, snapped at by pets, snarled in everything from fencing to Christmas lights, and whatever other consequences may befall wildlife interacting with civilization.
Plus, high-stepping through deep drifts or having to punch through the icy crust that forms on top of freeze-thawed snow just makes moose expend even more energy. And that means they need to eat more. Thus is the other challenge of a tough winter — available food options are slim, and suitable browse becomes increasingly scarce as the winter drags on. Anywhere birch, willow or aspen sprouted new saplings last spring now stand gnarled, peeled, clubbed little stumps, chewed by hungry moose into Alaska’s version of a cactus.
But as much as people may hate the thought of moose facing starvation, or aren’t fond of the increased interest the ungulates take in gardens and landscaping when their preferred natural browse is unavailable, there isn’t much John Q. Public can directly do to help, since it’s illegal and unwise to feed moose. Much of what people might think to offer moose isn’t good for them, and habituating wildlife to expect easy meals from humans rarely comes without negative consequences.
A large-scale way to address the situation would be habitat enhancement projects, such as using fire to encourage forest regrowth. But again — talk about illegal and unwise — that’s definitely not a strategy available to the public.
However, it is not illegal to help the available natural habitat feed moose, and the Kenai Peninsula chapter of the Safari Club International has started a clubwide effort to do just that.
On Friday, a few club representatives revved up their chainsaws at the Snowshoe Gun Club, off the
Kenai Spur Highway in Kenai, to cut down overbrowsed trees in order to encourage fresh new growth that moose could eat next year.
“I care about the moose, they’re a wonderful animal. I’m a hunter, all my life. We eat a lot of moose, it’s healthy for you. This is something people can do to help,” said Tom Netschert, a board member of the Kenai Peninsula SCI.
The club already is concerned about the reduced moose population on the peninsula and wants to see it rebuild. That’s why he was in favor of hunting restrictions on spike-fork bulls put in place last year, and aerial wolf control proposals just passed at the January Board of Game meeting. A harsh winter resulting in moose mortalities will only hinder efforts to rebuild the population, he said. The club’s board of directors decided that cutting overbrowsed trees was a way to help.
“If you have these really tough winters, cows and calves that live around town eat up most of the vegetation we have around here, and that’s why you’re going to see a lot of these heavily browsed, clubbed plants,” said Ted Spraker, SCI member, retired Fish and Game Kenai-area biologist, and vice chair of the Alaska Board of Game. Spraker and his wife, Elaina, joined Netschert and wife, Spencie, in the tree-clearing project Friday.
Stumpy, clubbed trees about 4 feet tall stuck out like gnawed-on sore thumbs along one side of the road into the gun range, while on the other, the same types of willow, aspen and birch trees soared to full height. The difference isn’t the age of the trees, Spraker said. It’s how much they’ve been browsed. After cutting a few clubbed specimens and counting rings in the 4-inch-diameter trunks, the trees showed to be 13 to 20 years old, plenty old enough to be as tall as their brethren across the road. But once moose find tasty new growth to browse, browse they will until all new growth is chomped off, leaving just scraggly, porcupine-looking hulks.
Moose need new growth to eat, Spraker explained.
“They have to have a lot of bark available because they can’t process the woody, inside part. Moose
sometime will get into second-year growth, but they’re primarily after the current annual growth,” he said. “The problem is, (once a tree has been browsed to the point it’s clubbed) a moose can’t get its head down in there to utilize this current annual growth. These trees still produce current annual growth, but the moose can’t get at it,” Spraker said.
Moose need to eat about 2 percent of their body weight a day, he said. For a 1,000-pound animal, that’s 20 pounds of dry weight of browse.
“It takes a lot, but that’s to sustain a moose on a really good nutritional level. Wintertime is much different. If they can just have enough food to kind of keep their stomach going and keep them from being hungry all the time they’ll kind of cruise through the winter,” he said.
Otherwise, when snow conditions limit mobility and browse is scarce, moose can end up haunting the last place they found a meal, which can be in town.
“Moose have a different strategy than other animals, like caribou. Caribou get into a deep-snow winter, they have sense enough to move. They’ll keep moving until they find some good browse. Moose just hunker down and wait it out. That’s why you see these calves that will be in the Fred Meyer’s parking for months until they finally die, because they don’t have sense enough to move,” Spraker said.
And the worst may be yet to come.
“The winter cleans out the calves first, because they’re small and in poor shape and have very low fat reserves. When things start to thaw out and the snow is melting, everybody thinks, ‘Boy, they’ve made it. We had a horrible winter and lost a lot of calves but things are looking up,’” Spraker said.
But though daylight is increasing, temperatures are rising and snow is melting enough to uncover
additional browse, its quality is nutritionally poor. Freeze-thaw weather brings crusty snow conditions, still making it difficult for moose to get around. And at this point in the winter, they’ve got even less fat reserves to fuel their endless search for a well-stocked buffet.
“Although there’s some browse exposed because the snow’s melting, all those plants are pretty much leached out as far as nutritional value, and that’s when you start losing the adults. They’ve made it through the entire winter and used up all their fat and reserves and they’re just barely hanging on in the spring. And especially if you have a long, extended, cold spring, which we’ve had the last few years, then you lose a lot of the adults. I’ve seen that happen enough times to know you’re not out of the woods until you start seeing leaf production in middle May,” Spraker said.
If moose have at least a little something nutritious on which to munch, the consequences of a harsh winter might not be as dire, he said.
“In the wintertime they can make it on probably less than 1 percent of their body weight as long as there’s a little something coming in all the time to keep their stomach moving and things digesting. Even if it’s enough to just barely keep them moving, at least it keeps them moving in the right direction,” Spraker said.
That’s where the tree clearing comes in, he said. It won’t create new growth fast enough to help moose this winter, but it will be ready to eat next winter.
“People are wanting to know what to do. They want the (Kenai National Wildlife Refuge) to go out
and do habitat, they want the Department (of Fish and Game) to go out and do habitat, they want everybody else to do it. Well, we do too, there’s no doubt we need habit enhancement in the refuge, but the next thing is what can local people do to offset some of these starving moose. And this is something,” Spraker said.
First, what not to do. Don’t intentionally feed moose. That’s illegal. And don’t cut healthy, grown trees for the heck of it. Trimming off overbrowsed, clubbed trees is one thing, but Spraker said that if he cuts a grown tree, he does it for firewood.
“I’m not trying to circumvent the law, but just change your firewood-cutting practice to the wintertime, especially now, and you can really benefit moose,” he said. “We go out, drop several trees, stack them up, let them dry — usually a couple summers — and then get cords of wood. We have made a practice of cutting our birch in the wintertime.”
When he cuts down or prunes back browsed trees, he piles up the branches he wouldn’t use for firewood and leaves them for snowshoe hares.
“It makes good habitat for snowshoe hares. We stack branches after we trimmed the tree, make
piles and the bunnies burrow underneath and they have little places for habitat,” he said.
Second, don’t wait much longer to cut. Trees go dormant during the winter, storing their nutrients in their root systems. Being munched by moose or cut by a blade while still dormant doesn’t damage the plant’s ability to sprout come spring. But once the tree “wakes up” in spring, nutrients move up the plant to produce buds and new shoots.
“This has to be done before the nutrients, the sap, starts to move up the plant, which is going to happen here in the next month. If you do it after that you damage the plant. As soon as the soil warms up they get all ready and start reproducing leaves and stems and so forth,” Spraker said.
Now for the big caveats: Be careful where you cut. Do not cut anywhere near major roads or highways, for instance. Even with smaller, low-traffic roads, don’t cut on both sides, since it will only encourage moose to cross back and forth in search of food.
Tree trimming also must be done with the landowner’s permission. It is not allowed on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land, Spraker said.
The safest approach, legally, is to cut on your own property. That’s a great idea for property out of town — such as around cabins in the Caribou Hills. Trimming clubbed browse or cutting firewood in a more-urban backyard comes with additional considerations. Do you want moose in your neighborhood? Do your neighbors? After the moose finish eating the regenerated browse, they might just move on to whatever else may be available to eat in the area.
“This is the type of effort that has to be used with a lot of common sense. You have to kind of think about this when you do it,” Spraker said. “If people want to encourage moose around their house, they should do this. If they don’t want to encourage moose, they shouldn’t do this. This will regenerate brows, which will benefit moose and they will show up and they will stay there until they eat it all, and maybe a little after. Anytime you do something like this to encourage wildlife to stay close to a residence, you have to be aware of all the unforeseen consequences. This should be done very carefully.”
The other caveat to be aware of is that clearing a backyard full of browse is not going to save the moose population. Even with an organization such as SCI taking this effort on, what they can accomplish versus how much moose need to eat is not a balanced equation.
But it’s a start, Netschert said. And if other people get in on the effort, especially on an annual basis to encourage several age classes of browse sprouting back, it’ll be that much more of a help. At the very least, he said it’s at least a way to spread awareness of the problems with moose habitat on the peninsula.
“It’s something,” he said.
Editor’s note: Calls to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for this story were not returned by press time.