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Studying Decline of Skwentna Moose Goes Beyond Tally

Collars: Biologists know predators are a problem, but focus is not on validity of wolf control

Zaz Hollander / Anchorage Daily News / April 20, 2005

Wasilla AK -- Biologists are collaring moose around Skwentna to see how they survive the year in an effort to look beyond the predator problems that triggered a state-sanctioned aerial wolf-kill program last winter.

Fifty years ago, Skwentna resident Joe Delia traveled from cabin to cabin along his trapline and counted 100 moose, easy. Today, Delia said, it's rare he sees one or two moose in the same area.

That's a blow to the community of roughly 80 residents, a collection of homes and a few businesses accessible only by boat or snowmachine.

"I'm 75 years old. I doubt in my lifetime we'll see the recovery of the moose, but people here really depend on the moose meat," said Delia, an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race institution whose home serves as a race checkpoint. "It gets pretty expensive to ship out meat."

Moose counts in the 1970s and '80s showed a high of 10,000 animals in the area, which stretches from west of the Susitna River to Skwentna, biologists say. That number is down to about 4,000 now.

Last winter's wolf-kill program resulted in nearly 100 dead animals, about half the wolves in the game unit. Aerial kill programs, approved statewide three years ago, have drawn fire from critics who say the program is a boon to hunters but may not help moose populations rebound.

Wolves aren't the only potential culprits out there.

Biologists believe bear probably hammer newborn moose calves too. After a similar collaring project found that black and brown bears around McGrath killed substantial numbers of newborn moose calves several years ago, the state started a short-term effort to tranquilize and transplant bears from the area.

And it's possible changing natural environments around Skwentna played a role in the decline here.

Moose flourished in the decades after 1940s fires in the Beluga Mountain area, munching on tender low brush and small trees that sprouted from scorched patches.

Maybe, Delia said, it's like the old-timers used to say: The big animals "ate themselves out of house and home" and just don't have enough browse to support big numbers any more.

That's one question the $105,000 Alaska Department of Fish and Game study might help answer.

Biologists said that all they know for sure about Skwentna moose is about how many there are.

"Other than numbers, there hasn't been a lot done out there," said John Crouse, a state wildlife biologist at the Moose Research Center near Sterling. Crouse is heading up the Skwentna moose study, which covers an 8,000-square-mile tract technically known as Game Management Unit 16B.

Last month, biologists hung radio collars on 59 cow moose and captured and weighed eight 10-month-old calves. The team darted the moose from the helicopter, landed, collared them and took blood samples, which were sent to a lab in Moscow, Idaho, for tests. Pregnancy tests can even determine if the cows are due with twins, Crouse said.

Starting in mid-May, the team will track how many new calves are born, which is a good indication of how healthy the cows are and how much they're getting to eat.

The scientists will also monitor how many cows die and try to figure out what killed them.

The money for the collaring study was a special appropriation of Fish and Game funds earmarked for evaluation of the state's wolf control program.

>From 1983 through 1988, an average of 1,315 hunters reported killing 485 moose a year in 16B, according to a finding released with the decision. That fell within the board's goal of harvesting 310 to 600 moose for a population of 6,500 to 7,500 animals.

More recently, the state has closed hunting except for subsistence as moose harvests have plummeted.
The state's Game Board approved aerial wolf control in the Skwentna area unit in March 2004.

Rod Arno, spokesman for the Alaska Outdoor Council, said predators are the leading cause of the decline in moose numbers. The council was one of the leading proponents of an aerial control program.

Yes, historical fires probably created lots of moose decades ago, but now predators are a clear threat, Arno said. "Right now, the population is in a predator pit. There's no question about it."

The study will help the state justify its wolf control program, he said.

Delia, for his part, wondered why the state didn't do the study first, before starting the wolf program.

Crouse said his study is not focusing on the effectiveness of wolf control. He's focusing on how well moose reproduce and survive.

"We know there's a lot of predators in 16B, but what other things are going on?" he said. "We don't want to jump to any conclusions right away. We want to go out and collect some data."

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