Cantwell Moose Fall to Wolves

Martin Caress / Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / February 13, 2003


After living in Cantwell for nearly 41 years, I remember the "good old days" when you could shoot a moose right off your porch. Although I never did, I could have.

Now, I'd have a better chance to shoot a wolf from my porch than I would a moose. The same condition applies to the area I have hunted for the past 14 years, a private, remote lodge established in 1938. Being over 40 air miles off the Parks Highway, it is a beautiful area normally teeming with game. How do I know about my chances of shooting a wolf over shooting a moose? Tracks, visual sightings and biological reports.

Generally this time of year as far back as I can remember, there were always about 75 to 120 moose within the Cantwell area. This year, from my own observations, I know of three moose--two cows and one calf. Also, there has been a pack of five single wolves.

Over at the hunting lodge, 45 air miles from my home on the Denali Highway, moose have been declining at an alarming rate for the past 10 years. A very conservative estimate of their decline is about 600 percent.

During a 10-day hunt in the late '80s and early '90s, we would see about 120 to 150 moose. During the past three years, we now see about 15 to 30 moose.

Since 1938, usually one to three bulls were harvested, from my own observations in this remote area during hunting season, and wolves used the main moose trails and riverbed each and every night of our hunt. Several have been shot. Area biologists have identified seven wolf packs in this area with one pack of 23 members. Wolf populations have tripled in Game Management Unit 13 during the past 10 years.

Back in Cantwell the heaviest mortality on moose happened a few years back during a heavy snow that winter. Moose flocked to the railroad tracks and over 70 were killed within five miles of Cantwell by the train. Wolves killed several more moose even though there were dead ones along the tracks. I attribute the demise of our local moose to the Alaska Railroad.

During the same winter, 45 miles away at the hunting lodge, area biologists did only a few aerial surveys along the Susitna River. They found an average of one moose kill per mile each flight. Heavy snows quickly covered these kill sites. (The Susitna River is close to the hunting lodge.)

In 1989, there were an estimated 28,500 moose in Unit 13. Our biologist tells us there are close to 8,000 now. Calf survival is zero percent in some areas, and not much better in the rest of Unit 13.

Caribou in this unit had good news recently. Their birth weight was up, indicating healthier calves. However, we had bad news too. Calf survival was down. Sheep in the Talkeetna Mountains are down about 60 percent. Lamb survival is poor at best. Wolf populations have tripled.

You've probably heard talk about wolves coming into rural communities more so than usual. In Cantwell last winter, five wolves were shot, basically from people's porches. Two of the dead wolves had a beagle dog inside of them; nutritionally the wolves were on the verge of starving with no body fat on them. That tells me something about their habitat deterioration.

So now you know some of what I know. Is there someone out there that understands that this is a wolf habitat problem? With moose, caribou, sheep and bears; when there is a surplus or they are endangering their food source, we liberalize the seasons. Simple as that!

If we really want our wildlife managers to do a good job, we can't allow them to play favorites. They have had their management tools removed, their predator programs locked-up because of our previous governor's policy on wolves. Our new Gov. Murkowski wants to manage for "abundance." Maybe historic high levels are unattainable, but I've never met a reasonable Alaskan that is against abundance of animals.

Gov. Murkowski said he would stand up to a tourism boycott. Good for him! I personally don't care much for people that would threaten me or my family's income. If I remember right, a study done after the last tourism boycott threat showed that it would impact tourism minimally, if at all.

Martin Caress is Denali advisory chair of the Denali Wolf Buffer Zone Committee.

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