Survey Finds More Moose

McGRATH: Increase is called "small and not statistically significant."

Mary Pemberton / The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / February 24, 2004

Moose numbers near McGrath, where a state-sponsored aerial wolf-kill program is under way, have increased slightly in the past two years, a state agency said Monday.

The increase, however, is so small as to be statistically meaningless, a Department of Fish and Game biologist said.

State biologists last November counted 580 moose in the experimental study area near McGrath, up from 531 in 2001.

"The difference is small and not statistically significant," biologist Mark Keech said in a news release.

McGrath, a village of about 400 people about 220 miles northwest of Anchorage, is one of two areas in Alaska where the state has approved aerial wolf-kill programs to boost the moose population. The other program is in the Nelchina basin area, about 100 miles northeast of Anchorage.

In both areas, residents have long complained that bears and wolves are eating too many moose, leaving them with too few to eat.

Fish and Game surveyed about half of the 87 sample units in the study area. It was not able to survey enough of the units in the larger 19D East game management unit to know what is happening with moose there, Keech said. The data that were collected, however, showed fewer moose in the larger area than in 2001.

"As a result, making inferences about that population is difficult, and we are not alarmed by the apparent decline," Keech said.

Keech said that the ratio of calves to cows is significantly higher in the study area and that supports previous data showing an increase in calf survival.

Wolf biologist Gordon Haber said the data are suspect. He said the agency reached its population objective for the game unit and went forward with bear and wolf control anyway near McGrath.

"You can drive gaping holes through the data they have now," Haber said.

Fish and Game previously credited the relocation of dozens of black and brown bears from the McGrath area last spring with increasing the summer survival rate of moose calves.

The next phase of the program called for removing 40 wolves from the McGrath area this winter. Three hunter-and-pilot teams have permits to kill the wolves, but weather so far has prevented any wolves from being killed near McGrath. Two more teams have been authorized and the state is still taking applications, Harmes said.

As of Monday, more than 60 wolves had been killed in the Nelchina basin area near Glennallen. The state's goal is 140 wolves.

Board of Game chairman Mike Fleagle said the slight increase in moose in the McGrath study area probably is due to bear relocation because aerial wolf control has yet to have an impact.

"We don't have the results we want yet," Fleagle said. "The moose numbers are still way down."

The board is considering doubling the moose population objective for game unit 19D East to between 6,000 and 8,000, Fleagle said.

That move would not necessarily mean that aerial wolf control would have to be expanded if the McGrath study area operates well as a moose nursery, Fleagle said.

Biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe, who served for 3 1/2 years on the Game Board under two governors, said increasing the moose population objective for the game unit is a serious mistake.

"I think it is disingenuous for a board member to say we are not going to increase the area over which wolves are shot. Of course it would," he said. "It locks you into wolf control forever."

The Alaska Wildlife Alliance launched its own protest Monday in response to the aerial wolf-kill programs. The group has bought 20 hours of flying time from a charter plane company to fly a banner that says, "Alaskans said no to aerial wolf killing," referring to voter initiatives in 1996 and 2000.

"This is our aerial protest," said wildlife director Paul Joslin.

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