Moose Numbers Could Not Sustain Alaska's Population


Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / March 7, 2004


How did the politics of Alaska wildlife get so divisive?

These days we've got legislators on opposite sides of the philosophical divide trying to dictate that:

* The best use of all Alaska big-game animals should be food.

* The Board of Game should be restructured to give a larger say to "nonconsumptive" wildlife users, i.e. animal lovers.

Has the entire process been taken over by extremists on opposite ends of the debate who share only one thing, a fundamental lack of understanding about Arctic and subarctic ecosystems?

One group wants a moose behind every willow bush.

The other wants wolves so plentiful as to make wolf viewing an easy and marketable activity.

Neither is feasible, let alone realistic.

Alaska is a far northern landscape. A short growing season restricts the diversity and productivity of plant life, limiting the number of herbivores it can support. The small number of prey species -- even counting Alaska's caribou herds, which look large because they cluster -- dictate that there will be food for only a limited number of predators.

Man can manipulate this environment. Nonconsumptive users who think nature operates in some sort of sensible balance, are simply wrong. Look no further than Anchorage. The city is overrun with moose for one simple reason: It's a predator-free zone.

Motor vehicles kill plenty of moose here every year, but they do not kill anywhere near as many as wild predators take. Still, you may have noticed you can't count on finding a moose in Anchorage anytime you want. Visiting tourist friends might drive around town for days and not spot a moose.

It is worth noting that if we decided Anchorage moose should be consumed, we wouldn't feed many people.

Unless we wanted to kill all 1,000 or so in one big bloodletting -- after which no one would ever see a moose in Anchorage again -- we might be able to remove 200 moose a year from this population. But cars already get more than 100. So the number of moose that hunters could shoot would be fewer than that.

I'd like to shoot an Anchorage moose. I like moose meat, and the doggone critters are always getting up on my deck to eat our willows. It would be easy and convenient to dump a winter supply of meat right there outside the door. It's an Alaska village resident's fantasy.

But I'm not sure it's the highest and best use of Anchorage's moose. I actually think it might be better if instead of using Anchorage moose to feed people -- the roadkills go to charity -- we started using Anchorage moose to feed wolves.

I'm truly sympathetic with all those nonconsumptive users who want to see a wolf. That's tough to do in Alaska, and we could make it easier. We could create wolf-viewing areas by picking a place to dump the carcasses of moose killed on Anchorage roads or by wildlife officials.

Yes, I know, there are those who might find this sort of animal feeding distasteful, but people feed wild birds all the time just to get the chance to see them and think that's wonderful.

And other states feed elk or deer to help them through the winter.

What's wrong with helping wolves get an easy meal while making it easier for people to see them? It wouldn't be difficult to condition a group to become "the most viewed wolf pack in Alaska."

A bunch of people favor this idea. They've argued that having a habituated pack of wolves -- a pack tolerant of people -- around Denali National Park is good. It makes the wolves easier to see.

Let's not stop there. Let's go all the way. Let's make these wolves as viewable as the Dall sheep along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. Creating wildlife viewing opportunities is something that man can do.

But creating a bounty of moose is simply impossible.

Even if we killed every wild predator in Alaska -- and there now seem to be people who want to declare war on wolves and bears (can coyotes and wolverines be far behind?) -- we still couldn't hope to produce the number of moose Alaskans would like to shoot.

We passed that stage in human evolution more than 100 years ago. Those were the days when Alaska's first people lived off the land, and it should be noted that the population of people who lived off the bounty of the sea vastly outnumbered those trying to subsist on big game. The latter numbered in the thousands.

Today, we number in the hundreds of thousands. Even those people who can trace all or parts of their family tree back to the first known Alaskans outnumber the harvestable quantity of moose meat by several orders of magnitude.

I'd like to believe most Alaskans understand this at some level. I'd like to believe that most Alaskans support a wildlife management system that tries to sustain relatively high populations of all wild species while recognizing the limits of the land in which we live and the compromises that must be made. I'd like to believe that most Alaskans support a system of wildlife management that does its best to preserve the important cultural opportunities to hunt while recognizing that to preserve wildlife we must ensure that most Alaska hunters come home with an experience instead of a kill. And I'd like to believe that most Alaskans, like me, recognize there's a value to seeing wildlife that goes beyond shooting it.

Yeah, I'd like to dump 800 pounds of moose meat on my deck with the old .30-06, but not if it meant I'd never get to see another moose eating the willows there. I like to see moose on a regular basis even more than I like to eat moose.

I think that applies to most of us.

But these days it's hard to tell. The screeching of extremists tends to drown out the opinions of ordinary, everyday Alaskans.

Outdoors Editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Reach him at cmedred@adn.com

 


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