Lingering Winter Snow is Killing Local Moose

Outdoors / Craig Medred / Anchorage daily News / April 25, 2004

Almost every spring, it is this way for a few, but the suffering this year appears especially bad.

For moose, the long, dark, Alaska winter is a season of slow starvation that starts with the first deep snows of October or November and does not end until the emergence of the first, green shoots of vegetation in March or April or, the way things are looking now, probably May.

Moose devour twigs, branches, even bark, to help tide them over between the growing seasons. But there is never enough to meet their energy needs. Much of it serves only to sate the pangs of hunger before passing through as wood fiber.

Moose rest more and move less to conserve energy. They curl up in the snow and do not rise for hours. They stroll down city streets or packed trails, instead of draining their energy wading through deep snow, looking for something, anything, to eat.

Their choices are not good: Maybe someone's ornamental mountain ash tree or a willow that has survived in a greenbelt. The low quality of the food is recorded in the hard, little moose nuggets that litter the ground. They are little more than pellets of undigestable wood fiber.

Given the sad state of the moose, it was probably inevitable their plight would come up while commiserating with Audubon Society senior scientist John Schoen last week about Southcentral's unusually slow breakup.

A skier, runner and mountain biker, Schoen is -- like so many others -- caught between seasons. Most local trails are still covered with snow, but unless the overnight temperature drops below freezing and you get up at 5 or 6 a.m. to catch the crust, skiing is marginal at best.

Running is limited to roadways, the pavement of a few recently plowed trails, or attempts at post-holing down snow-covered paths, which is as unpleasant as it is damaging to what skiing might be left. The option of running the pavement is, of course, little better. A direct transition from skiing body-friendly trails to running bone-jarring asphalt can be downright painful.

Mountain biking, meanwhile, is a road sport for now -- and a wet and dirty one at that on surfaces where one must pay careful attention to loose gravel left over from winter sanding to avoid crashes.

"It was kind of a discouraging weekend,'' Schoen said. "I spent at least 40 minutes dithering over what to do.''

In the end, he and wife Mary Beth headed to Kincaid Park to pursue the rumor the south end of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail was snow free. It wasn't.

But things can always be worse, as Anchorage moose are now demonstrating.

Like many biologists, Schoen expects this winter will take a deadly toll on moose. Winter kill is a reality of the wild. Deep and lingering snow simply decimated moose populations in the Portage, Placer and Twentymile rivers area south of Anchorage in spring 1999. Everywhere one looked along the Portage Valley Road that spring, it seemed there were moose bedded down, unable to rise, waiting to die.

Nobody expects anything that ugly in Anchorage this year. But area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game won't be surprised if a significant number of the animals perish. The state agency, which keeps no official records on local winter kills, has already warned homeowners that if a moose drops dead in their yard, it's their problem.

Fish and Game is in charge of managing live moose, not dead ones. The latter are nothing but food for scavengers: eagles, ravens, foxes, maybe wolves if you live on the very edges of Anchorage, and quite possibly bears if you're foolish enough to leave the carcass in your yard for long.

People who live in cities sometimes forget this is how nature works. Beyond the protection of Anchorage, the reality is moose die hard and often. Winter may mean being ripped apart by the fangs of wolves, getting buried in an avalanche or starving.
That we are now witnessing one small part of that is attributable to deep snow that drove moose down out of high pastures early this winter. Many of them ended up spending the winter competing for scraps of marginal food at lower elevations in the Anchorage Bowl.

And now winter lingers. It was snowing again above 1,000 feet around the Anchorage perimeter on Tuesday.

"There's going to be another month that's tough on moose,'' Schoen said.

This winter is almost the opposite of last year. In March of 2003, Schoen noted, he was running a snow-free Turnagain Arm Trail eyeing the green of the first vegetation popping up in the warm spring sun. At the end of March last year, I had moose down on their knees grazing grass in my south-facing yard at 1,040 feet.

Now, the yard is buried under 2 feet of snow. The same is true for parts of the Turnagain trail. Only a handful of windswept, south-facing bluffs along the Arm even look like they'll see greenery soon.

That the lingering winter makes life less than perfect for us seems insignificant against what the weather means to other creatures.

Daily News outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at or 257-4588

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