By Jenny Neyman
Moose numbers may not be what they once were on the Kenai Peninsula, but hunting regulations moved a small, spiked step closer to what they have been in the past, as the Alaska Board of Game enacted measures liberalizing harvest opportunities for several species and extending predator control measures on the Kenai Peninsula, during its Southcentral Region meeting March 15 to 19 in Kenai.
The board passed several measures relating to moose hunting, meant to balance harvest opportunity while protecting the diminished population.
Moose numbers in Units 15A and 15C have fluctuated over the decades but have shown consistent decline since the 1980s, largely due to limited habitat availability — particularly in 15A in the northwestern central peninsula, and also predation, road kills and hunting pressure. Two years ago the board enacted strict hunting regulations to limit the moose harvest and improve the ratios of bulls and calves to cows, with only bulls with a 50-inch-or-greater antler spread or four brow tines on one side being eligible for harvest. According to ongoing studies done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, moose are still struggling in 15A.
“To me the most telling statistic is the declining moose abundance trend we are seeing. Not only are we well below our intensive management objective, but our population is declining annually with no sign of stabilization or growth,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.
There’s better news in Unit 15C, south of Tustumena Lake, where moose numbers are higher and the bull-to-cow ratio has improved since 2011.
“We have information that suggests habitat is not limiting moose production in this unit to the extent that it is in 15A. Bottom line is that we’re below harvest goals but within population goals,” Vincent-Lang said.
Proposal 143 suggested loosening the hunting restriction to bulls with a 50-inch or greater antler spread, or four brow tines or a spike on one side — essentially moving some of the wiggle room in the rebuilding moose population to potential harvest.
“It’s been stated that you can’t bank moose, and I think that’s very true, particularly in 15A,” said Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife manager for Fish and Game. The department recommended adoption of the amended Proposal 143.
Not all hunters want the extra wiggle room in harvest, however. Several members of the public and representatives of area Fish and Game Advisory Committees requested that the board leave the 2011 restriction in place to help the moose population continue to rebound.
“An overwhelming majority of the moose-hunting public supports leaving the restriction as it is. They’ve seen it has had a positive impact. Let’s leave it in place a good four to five years to make a big impact,” said Bob Ermold, with the Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee.
Board members, rather, saw the population as stable enough to support additional harvest.
“There has been public testimony asking us to retain (the current regulation). That being said, I think it’s important to retain the structure but allow opportunity to harvest a few more moose. I think that’s an appropriate step for now,” said Nate Turner, vice chair.
The measure was modified to adopt substitute language proposed by Fish and Game. The final approved measure:
- Proposal 143: Modifies 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 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.”
Other moose measures:
- 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. Each of the last two years, only four moose were harvested.
- 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 after nightfall — 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.
Predator control was another hot topic this board cycle, as it was two years ago when the board gave Fish and Game staff authority to conduct aerial wolf kills in Units 15A and 15C in hopes of lessening wolf predation on moose and boosting the moose population.
This year, with approval of Proposal 147, the board allowed an extension of the department’s aerial wolf control authority. Although, to this point, Fish and Game hasn’t used it in 15A or 15C.
“Before we implemented these tools I needed to ensure that I had really sufficient information to inform and defend my decisions as to whether or not to implement these tools. I wanted to ensure that they would be effective, first towards increasing moose production, and, second, that they would not impact wolf sustainability in either of the two areas,” Vincent-Lang said.
A wolf census in 2011 generated a population estimate showing wolf numbers are steady on the peninsula, with 60 to 62 wolves estimated in Unit 15A, 40 to 46 wolves in Unit 15B, and 44 to 52 wolves in 15C, according to Fish and Game. And that’s with an uptick in interest from trappers. In the 1990s wolf harvest declined, with trappers reluctant to target wolves because of damage to hides from the louse infestation afflicting peninsula wolf packs. The louse damage seems to be lessening, however, and trapping interest had been increasing.
Still, in the realm of predator control, Fish and Game is looking to remove more wolves, estimating that wolves accounted for about 6 percent of predation on moose cows studied by Fish and Game, as well as preying on calves. Vincent-Lang said he’s more inclined now to conduct aerial control measures in 15A, though that is a limited area in which to do so, since most of the unit consists of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land, where such predator control measures are not allowed. He’s more reluctant to green-light aerial wolf kills in Unit 15C, he said, citing increased public opposition, and also more interest from trappers in targeting wolves.
“We are seeing increasing wolf harvest under general hunting and trapping regulations. I am concerned that removing wolves in this unit through aerial control could impact these opportunities, the long-term desire of people to solve the problem of wolf predation through general hunting and trapping regulations,” Vincent-Lang said.
The department, also through Proposal 147, got an additional tool with which to control the wolf population — contracting with trappers to target wolves and increase their harvest within the established wolf-trapping season and related regulations.
“(Contracting with trappers) would allow us to do wolf control in areas where aerial wolf control is not practical,” Vincent-Lang said. “… Given this data I can tell you I am very concerned with the moose population in 15A. I am convinced that we must increase moose production and survival so that we have a greater chance of success for the moose population recovery in the event habitat can be improved. Bottom line — we need to arrest the declining trend in this area.”
But wolves, to some, have gotten a bad rap, becoming scapegoats in Unit 15’s moose population decline, rather than animals worthy of as much consideration as other wildlife species.
“Wolves play a vital role in the health and integrity of living ecosystems,” said John Toppenberg, of Sterling, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, who addressed what he termed as the board’s “fixation on wolf control.”
“A few bad winters? Kill more wolves. Habitat is degenerated? Kill more wolves. Bears are killing most of the moose calves? No problem — kill more wolves. Overhunting in some regions? Still no problem, kill more wolves. … In case you have not noticed, this board is perceived by many as not paying any attention to the tourism industry, wildlife viewers and accepted science. I challenge you to change that perception,” he said.
Others, though, testified that the board should do what it could to lessen predation pressure on moose, particularly given the significant challenges of enacting large-scale moose habitat enhancement projects.
“We’ve got to control the predators,” said Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee. “I want wolves, I want bears, I don’t want to get rid of them. I enjoy trapping wolves — it’s a hell of a challenge — but I also enjoy eating moose.”
The board approved Proposal 147, extending aerial wolf control authority and allowing the department to contract with trappers to target wolves. Also regarding wolves, the board:
- Approved Proposal 159, opening wolf, coyote and lynx hunting in Skilak Loop, including Kelly-Peterson Lakes. This does not, however, mean the refuge will allow this in its regulations.
- Approved Proposal 160, extending the trapping season for wolves and coyotes in Units 7 and 15 to starting Oct. 15, rather than Nov. 10, though only small snares may be used in October.
Scientists have estimated, the public has spoken, and the board responded with liberalized bear-hunting opportunities on the Kenai Peninsula.
In light of the doubled population estimate of brown bears now thought to be on the Kenai Peninsula — 624, up from 250 to 300, in an estimate generated by the refuge in its 2010 census — the board allowed for multiple additional opportunities to harvest bears.
Several members of the public testified that brown bears have become all too common on the peninsula — devouring moose calves, running black bears off of baiting stations and becoming a dangerous nuisance in human-populated areas.
Brenda Ahlberg lives about a mile from Soldotna Creek in what she calls a bear corridor, and has seen increasing bear activity in recent years. She said that she and her neighbors are careful — minimizing trash and other attractants, posting warning signs if a bear is spotted in the neighborhood and educating new neighbors how to be safe around bears — but that care hasn’t reduced the incidents of bears in the area. Her neighbor has had a brown bear bed down under her deck, and she had a boar chase a moose calf by her while she was out mowing her lawn.
“I encourage you, and your wherewithal and your responsibility and the stewardship that you take very seriously, that you will listen to individuals who have been here for many, many years who can, from an anecdotal experience, tell you that there’s a need to do some better management on the brown bear population,” Ahlberg said.
Hunters, too, asked for updated regulations that take the higher bear population estimate into account.
“The department’s intention to open a registration hunt in areas of high human-bear conflict is long overdue and will serve to eliminate habitual problem bears to prevent them from passing on bad habits and reduce bear numbers in discreet locations, and provide brown bear hunting near the road system where it is easily accessible,” said Dave Lyon, chair of the Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
Fish and Game also recommended passage of liberalized hunting opportunities for brown bears.
“There’s been an awful lot of societal input into how we handle management of brown bears on the peninsula. At this point I think it’s very fair to say that this is a healthy population, stable and slightly increasing,” said Sean Farley, a wildlife research biologist with Fish and Game. “… The only caveat that I throw out there is it is still a relatively small population, and it can be harvested and it can be hunted, there’s no question about it, I’m all for it. It just bears a lot of close scrutiny.”
The board stated its interest in setting a minimum population threshold — say, 250 brown bears — for management purposes, and asked the department to generate a suggestion for that number by the board’s next meeting. Board members also discussed setting a target limit on the number of human-caused brown bear mortalities in a year, potentially at 70, again to guide management.
“Our intent is not to even go near the minimum,” Turner said. “The minimum gives us a threshold to know that, ‘OK, that’s it. We can’t go below this.’ We’re not planning to push the bear population down to minimum levels by any means, we just want to safely ensure some opportunity is presented.”
The board amended and enacted Proposal 153, expanding brown bear harvest opportunities. Starting next fall, a brown bear registration hunt around the more populated areas of Units 7 and 15 will be open from Sept. 1 to May 31, with a limit of one bear every regulatory year. In the more remote areas of Units 7 and 15, a drawing hunt will have a limit of one bear every four regulatory years, with harvest not to exceed a three-year running average of 10 adult female mortalities.
The proposal also allows bait stations for brown bears, and allows taking a brown bear at a permitted black bear-baiting station. It further specifies that all edible meat of a brown bear taken under this permit must be salvaged and removed from the field.
Though the proposal passed in its entirety, the part about baiting brown bears generated some debate, with board member Bob Mumford voicing opposition to the practice, seeing brown bears as a trophy species.
“I’ve been on record before as opposing taking brown bears over bait. It’s not a different-colored bear (than black bears, which currently are open to hunting with bait), it’s a different species of bear. I feel there’s a large negative perception by the nonhunting public, people who are going to look at the actions of this board. I don’t support taking brown bears over bait, and I understand a dead bear is a dead bear no matter however you kill him, but I think there’s a negative perception by an awful lot of the world on this,” he said.
Ted Spraker, board chair, praised the board for expanding hunting of bears.
“I think we have heard such a tremendous amount of public testimony asking this board to provide opportunity to take brown bears on the Kenai,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the day when we have some stable seasons and bag limits and so forth, and now that we have these new (population) numbers I think we can move towards that direction.”
Other bear-bunting measures:
- Proposal 157 failed, which would have modified the black bear salvage requirements in Units 7 and 15 that either the hide and skull of meat be retained.
- Proposal 158 failed, which would have increased the bag limit for black bears in Units 7 and 15 to five per regulatory year.