With the moose population running at record levels in Anchorage but so low in other areas
of Alaska that the state is killing wolves, a popular suggestion this winter has been to share the wealth -- an urban-rural ungulate airlift.
Don't laugh. It could begin this summer.
A moose-mover bill is heading for approval in the Alaska Legislature, and Gov. Frank Murkowski looks likely to sign it. Sponsored by Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, it would authorize state-approved groups to tranquilize and remove "nuisance moose" from urban yards, playgrounds and roadways and relocate them to the Bush.
While almost none of the relocation details have been decided, the idea behind it has drawn support in many quarters, from Anchorage schools Superintendent Carol Comeau, who says she is concerned for the safety of her students, to subsistence advocates, who would love to augment rural moose herds with a few hearty urban transplants.
But the moose bill has met some resistance, particularly in the city it was designed to help. Biologists call it well-intentioned but expensive, potentially dangerous and probably ineffective, while wildlife advocates say Anchorage residents prefer peaceful co-existence with moose rather than their forced relocation.
"Most people don't consider moose to be a nuisance," said Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman Karen Deatherage. "That's not the majority viewpoint in this city."
The man behind the plan is unfazed by the criticism. Gary Olson, founder, chairman and, to date, unpaid director of the 16-month-old Alaska Moose Federation, said moose transplants are but a small part of his dream to improve the health of moose populations all over the state.
"For decades, we've sat back and watched" as new homes and highways encroached on moose habitat, said Olson, 33. Alaskans love their moose, he said, but "moose have shouldered the burden of conservation by themselves for far too long."
Olson and the federation have a long list of supporters, including Alaska's congressional delegation and half of the state Senate. The group has big plans as well. It is seeking federal money for fencing and overpasses to keep moose off highways and railroad tracks. It proposes mowing large tracts of land and controlled forest fires to improve moose browse. It envisions National Guardsmen plowing rural roadsides to lead moose away from the asphalt.
"It's a public-safety issue, first and foremost," Olson said. Moose-car collisions kill hundreds of moose and several humans every year and cause millions of dollars in damage.
But while the proposed fences and overpasses would help eliminate highway collisions, Olson believes the moose-mover bill could dramatically reduce moose-human interactions in one of the few areas of Alaska with a moose abundance -- Anchorage.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the winter moose population from Eagle River to South Anchorage has grown over the past decade to about 1,000. The population is held in check by skimpy habitat and about 160 car-crash deaths a year.
Yet as more moose and humans squeeze into the same space, it's causing friction, Olson said. "These moose have learned not to be afraid of us. They've learned this is their town. The repercussions are pretty dangerous."
They scare kids on school yards, stomp dogs, strip the bark off trees and chase skiers, Olson said, which makes many moose a nuisance and an occasional danger.
"You cannot ask the children of Anchorage to carry pepper spray or .44 Magnums," he said. "This is not just about adults with their own opinions about living with moose. This is a daily occurrence for these kids."
Under Bunde's bill, moose that "pose a significant risk to the health, safety or economic well-being of persons in the area" could be tranquilized and moved. Fish and Game biologists would determine whether a moose is a nuisance and where it would be taken.
But the legislation authorizes private individuals or groups to do the relocation work. That's where the moose federation comes in, Olson said. Fish and Game would oversee the big decisions, while his group would do the legwork and pick up the expenses.
The federation is already raising money toward the day it has a trained staff and the ability to hire the experts needed to pull off all the work it envisions, Olson said.
Fish and Game is "willing to give it a try," said Matt Robus, head of the wildlife conservation division in Juneau. "Our purpose in doing this is more to solve the nuisance moose problem" than to boost moose stocks elsewhere in Alaska, he said.
It's questionable whether moose can successfully be transplanted to places such as the lower Kuskokwim River or the Nelchina basin, Robus said. He looks at the transplant work almost as an experiment.
In the long term, he said, the federation's other proposals will likely pay greater dividends than transplanting moose. "I don't want to see people so preoccupied dealing with individual animals that they lose sight of things like plowing trails, lighting and fencing," he said.
State game managers farther from Juneau were more critical in their assessment. Jeff Hughes, the department's regional biologist in Anchorage, foresees "a lot of big problems," starting with the idea of moving an animal that can weigh 1,200 pounds.
The tranquilizing drug, Carfentanil, is a powerful and dangerous narcotic -- one drop on the skin can kill a human, he said. Darts sometimes miss their targets and get lost. Others hit the animal in the wrong spot, killing it instantly. And the drug can take weeks to metabolize, making the meat potentially hazardous to hunters.
"If a private group started doing (the tranquilizing work), they would need some training," Hughes said.
Moving moose is "a very iffy proposition," he said. It's easier to move calves than adults, but adults are more likely to be considered nuisance animals. Similarly, it's not feasible to move an animal in winter, when it's weak and its chances of survival are lowest, yet that's when moose are most likely to be aggressive.
Fish and Game also would have to designate an area to move the animals. If the new habitat isn't adequate, or if the predator population is too high, it wouldn't make sense. And transplants to some areas with biological potential, such as the lower Kuskokwim, may not have the support of residents.
"The track record for moving animals like that is really poor," Hughes said.
Moose calves from Southcentral Alaska were successfully transplanted to the Copper River Delta in the 1940s and '50s, but two attempts to stock moose in Kodiak failed. Olson believes technology has improved enough that the proposed efforts would be largely successful.
But even if some moose die during the attempt, he said, "it didn't take you and your family in a Subaru with it."
In testimony before the House Resources Committee last week, several people questioned whether the majority of Anchorage residents would support the relocation plan. Linda Donegan said neither she nor her children have felt threatened by moose, despite living on the moose-rich Hillside.
"I'm happy to take that risk for the privilege of living with these animals," she said.
Deatherage noted that nearly 90 percent of survey respondents told the Urban Wildlife Task Force that "people who live in Anchorage should learn to live with some conflicts or problems with wildlife."
The task force, which met for two years in the late 1990s, established guidelines that Fish and Game still uses to manage Anchorage moose, she said. The plan says that aggressive moose should be shot but that nuisance moose should be tolerated. That remains her group's preference, Deatherage said.
Longtime moose research biologist and former Alaska Board of Game member Vic Van Ballenberghe suggested that the committee table the bill, citing safety concerns, long-term cost and effects on moose. But the committee sent it on for consideration by the full House. It could come up for a vote any day, according to legislative staff members.
The governor hasn't mentioned Bunde's bill, spokesman John Manly said. But if Fish and Game supports the legislation, the governor probably would sign it, he said.
Olson acknowledged that he and the moose federation have hurdles to overcome but that with a public education campaign he can swing popular support. The group doesn't want to rid Anchorage of its moose, he said. "But we've got to get a handle on this ever-expanding population. We agree we can all live peacefully (with moose). But with diminishing habitat," he said, "you've got to be proactive."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310