Hunters could get their first chance in more than 20 years to bag a moose on the Hillside above Anchorage under a state-proposed plan that comes before the Alaska Board of Game in March.
State biologist Rick Sinnott says he would rather see a few moose shot in Chugach State Park than have them starve or struck by cars. "We're not talking about reducing them to invisibility," he said. "It just seems a shame to have them starving to death."
But the proposed hunt faces hurdles in a city where many residents don't see the doe-eyed animals as a nuisance, and negative memories of the last hunt -- television images of moose walking around with arrows in their rumps -- are still strong.
If the plan passes the Game Board, it still would require approval from park officials, who have nixed similar hunts in the past.
Adding a new wrinkle is the idea of transplanting moose into rural Alaska.
Said Sinnott: "It's going to be a fun debate."
The last Hillside hunt was in 1983, when conflicts between the city's ballooning human population and its long-time moose residents reached new heights. While many, particularly on the Hillside, enjoyed seeing moose wander through their back yards, others chafed at the ungainly ungulates stomping down fences, munching expensive trees, chasing their pets and scaring their children.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game proposed to trim the Hillside population by offering a November bow-and-arrow hunt in the Campbell and Rabbit creek drainages. The goal was to remove three dozen bulls, cows or calves.
The argument then was the same as it is now -- to let hunters rather than drivers trim the herd.
Afterward, department biologists said the two-day hunt had gone "relatively well," but public opinion was more negative. Landowners groused about trespassing hunters shooting moose in their yards. One man found a gut pile 20 feet from his car and a mile from the hunt area. Television news reports showed wounded moose limping around with arrows in their flanks.
Largely because of the bad publicity, the hunt was never repeated.
The moose situation has changed little since then, Sinnott said. The Anchorage Bowl's winter population varies from 700 to 1,000, depending mostly on how many moose died the previous winter because of starvation or car collisions.
Hunts on Fort Richardson, Elmendorf Air Force Base and upper Ship Creek drainage have hardly dented the population. Last fall, hunters took only 51.
In contrast, cars killed at least 188. Another dozen or so were killed by trains. Sinnott believes more than 200 starved to death in the Anchorage Bowl, dozens of which ended up in people's yards.
Sinnott considers all those deaths a waste. "From my perspective, why would you want moose to starve to death when you could have hunters harvest them," he said.
He proposes amending the Ship Creek hunt to give up to 50 permits for hunters to take a cow, calf or bull, which he believes could triple the harvest in that drainage without affecting the health of the herd.
The Hillside hunt may be a more difficult sell. The Game Board, which meets March 4-13 in Anchorage, may not buy it, Sinnott said.
"They may get lots of comments in opposition," and they will weigh those against the support, he said. "It's certainly not a slam dunk."
To help sway the board and ease the concerns of antsy Hillside residents, Sinnott envisions stricter limits on hunters. Only low-powered shotguns and muzzle loaders could be used -- no bow hunting. They would target only cows and yearling bulls, leaving the large, photogenic bulls untouched.
Hunters would have to pass a proficiency test and couldn't hunt within half a mile of park boundaries. The season would run from mid-October to late November to reduce conflicts with photographers, hikers and skiers.
For the first year, as few as four hunters would be issued permits, Sinnott said. Once managers and Anchorage residents felt more comfortable with the hunt, he would like to issue permits for as many as two dozen moose a year.
"My main thing is to do it as carefully as possible," Sinnott said, and not repeat the mistakes of 1983.
If the Game Board approves the hunt, the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation could kill it by refusing to authorize the use of firearms in that portion of Chugach State Park.
That scenario occurred in 1999. The Game Board had approved a Hillside moose hunt using muzzle loaders and shotguns, but the division effectively killed it by refusing to hand out the permits hunters needed to discharge firearms in the park.
Park superintendent Jerry Lewanski said last week the proposed hunt isn't a high priority for the park staff. "We've got more important things to worry about than whether a few moose are killed on the Hillside," he said.
But he has yet to hear from the park's advisory board, which may have additional concerns. Park users form a broad constituency, he said. "For every decision we make, there's a competing use that's going to object to it," he said. "This could be contentious."
POPULAR WILDLIFE VIEWING AREA
Since the last hunt, the trails leading out of Prospect Heights and Glen Alps have become among the most popular in Alaska for photographers to find bull moose with majestic racks browsing in the fall foliage, Lewanski said.
While firearms are allowed in other areas of the park, the Campbell and Potter Creek drainages were placed off-limits to provide wildlife-viewing areas. "This (proposed hunt) puts some conflict in the competing uses," he said.
On the other hand, he said, "Wildlife resources in this state are managed by Fish and Game, and we take their professional opinions on these issues." If biologists say a hunt is needed for conservation purposes, "I'm definitely not going to second-guess the professionals."
If the Game Board approves the small, tightly controlled hunt that Sinnott envisions, "We're not going to stand in the way of any hunt that's going to be beneficial to the park," Lewanski said.
"But I hope people don't expect that we'll solve the moose problem by having a hunt on the Hillside," he added. That would require a multi-agency approach and public support. The proposed Hillside hunt might be considered a test case, he said.
Among those likely to raise her voice against a resumed hunt is Linda Donegan, a Hillside resident who has opposed previous attempts. She and most of her neighbors worry about guns going off nearby, she said, and many doubt that the moose population needs control.
"It's a nice equilibrium up there right now," she said.
The newly formed Alaska Moose Federation doesn't oppose the idea of a hunt, executive director Gary Olson said. But if moose are unwelcome in Anchorage, his group is eager to move them where they're wanted.
Last year, the Alaska Legislature passed the "nuisance moose" bill, paving the way for private organizations to relocate animals that otherwise might be shot to death by the Department of Fish and Game.
Before the first moose is moved, the department must revise its protocols to authorize private individuals to do the work previously limited to state employees, such as using tranquilizing drugs powerful enough to kill a human and transporting large, wild animals safely.
Although the Hillside moose may not be a nuisance as defined by the bill, Olson said, "The transplant program should be a viable option" anywhere in Alaska where state biologists think there are too many moose.
If parts of Anchorage are eventually targeted for a relocation effort, Olson said the moose could be dropped off on the west side of Cook Inlet, near Tyonek. It's close, but also "someplace they couldn't reach another road," he said.
Sinnott said he doubts that large numbers of moose can be moved safely and inexpensively. The tranquilizer is dangerous, drugged animals can die if they're not moved quickly and carefully and urban moose might transmit diseases to their rural cousins.
"It's not as easy as it sounds," he said. "The operation can go south pretty quickly."
A hunt has some of the same drawbacks as relocation, including using guns in populated areas, Sinnott said. But it would be a simpler way to trim the city's winter moose population, with the side benefit of feeding local families.
"It just seems like we could have a hunt that is safe, with very little conflict and it would work," he said. And if it works on the Hillside, it could be expanded to other parks in the city. "Maybe if you just nibble away at the corners, we can get this thing under control."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.