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Intensive management: It's all about the moose

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In spite of the various public comments, editorials, radio spots, etc. about predator control plans and aerial wolf management on the Kenai Peninsula recently, one indisputable fact remains. Our moose population is declining. In fact, in areas like subunit 15A (north of the Kenai River and west of the mountains), it has been declining for quite some time. As a member of one of our local fish and game advisory committees, I've had the opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives and review a fair amount of research data related to our moose population.

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One thing I find troublesome, however, is when facts and figures are misquoted and/or applied incorrectly or out of context. As an example, one recent letter claimed that wolves only kill 6 percent of the moose population. My intention is not to criticize that writer, but I am not familiar with any particular research study that makes that claim. There was one local study, however, that collared 50 moose calves and determined mortality causes during the first three months of life (back in 1982). From that study, 6 percent of the mortalities discovered were determined to have been caused by wolves. It's a stretch to take that information and claim that all wolves kill only 6 percent of all moose (if this was the study referenced to make that claim). If that were true, then this same study would also suggest that black bears kill 34 percent of all moose; and if that were the case, we would not have any moose left.

Since our current predator control proposals contain a wide variety of data, we must recognize that it's not all necessarily interconnected, nor predictive. They contain information about overall populations of moose, area estimates of wolf populations, bull:cow ratios, calf:cow ratios, pregnancy rates, twinning rates, road kill numbers, historical data on fires, comments about habitat, etc. Heck, there are even rump fat indices.

How can someone sort all this out to form an educated opinion?  I believe that by isolating the basic facts (and in doing so, taking care not to inappropriately interpret data or apply findings), and by sticking to basic guiding principles, one can arrive at a reasonable understanding of the realities of the situation.

As for the basic facts, here is what we know:

* Subunit 15A has been in Intensive Management Status for approximately 12 years.

* Despite efforts and attention brought by the Intensive Management Status, moose in 15A have continued to decline and nothing has been done to change that trend.

* Although there is some cause for concern about habitat, the only time that moose starve, is in high numbers, and during severe winters. (Also, there is little hope that any meaningful habitat enhancement will be conducted in this area due to high costs, concerns about uncontrolled burning, and cooperative issues in conducting these projects on federal lands.)

* Fewer calves are surviving to breeding age, known as recruitment, which is a sign of further population decline. Low recruitment, coupled with older cows passing reproduction years, or falling prey to wolves during the winter (remember, wolves kill moose of all ages, all year long), has a compounding effect. Let's hope we don't also have a harsh winter.

To clarify our guiding principles, two things stand out:

* Our State Constitution mandates that we manage wildlife for "maximum sustained yield, and for maximum benefit of the people."

* A recent Alaska Supreme Court decision determined that management of moose and caribou populations takes priority over predators.

* That being said, it's clear that we not only have the responsibility to manage our wildlife according to these tenets, but we have an urgent obligation to do so because of the need indicated by the facts.

Although some tend to focus on aerial shooting of wolves as the centerpiece of this issue, the reason for these proposals is to perpetuate a healthy population of moose for a wide variety of users. This particular method of management may not be palatable to some, but it's hard to argue its effectiveness in reducing the impact caused by wolves, which ultimately helps achieve the goal of bringing 15A out of Intensive Management Status.

Several years ago I attended a presentation by Mr. Corey Rossi, the current Director of Wildlife Conservation for ADF&G. One particular statement he made during that presentation has resonated with me ever since. He said "The measure of success of a predator control program is not in how many bears and wolves you kill. The true measure of success is in how many more moose or caribou you put back on the ground." I couldn't agree more. I think Mr. Rossi hit the nail on the head. It's all about the moose ...

Bob Ermold is a Sterling resident and current vice-chairman of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

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