It may be exciting to wake up to find a monster bull moose munching on your fuchsias, but in Alaska auto accident and human injuries are going up as some moose opt for dumpster diving as a new way to forage. Enter, the Alaska Moose Federation.
Up in Alaska, things get big the world's biggest bears, glaciers as big as Rhode Island, 90-pound chinook salmon, 350-pound halibut, and North America's tallest mountain, Denali. Alaska also has the largest moose in the world.
The moose is the largest member of the deer family in the world, and of that family, the Alaskan moose is the largest. The big dark brown-black bulls can weigh upwards of 1600 pounds.
Long-associated with wilderness, Alaskan moose have recently moved right into the Anchorage city limits and set up camp in schoolyards, roadways and neighborhoods, feasting on shrubs, lawns, and flowers. It may be exciting to have a moose in your yard, but a cow with calves is more dangerous and aggressive than a sow bear with cubs.
Other than humans, brown and grizzly bears and wolves are the only wild animals that can take on an adult moose, but predation disappears when the moose have moved into town.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the winter moose population in the area from Eagle River to South Anchorage has grown to about 1,000. The only thing that holds population in check is skimpy habitat and about 160 car-crash moose deaths a year.
Moose occur throughout Alaska, except for the Aleutian Islands. They are most common in South Central and Inland areas. Density varies considerably from 1 animal for 30 square miles to five or more per square mile.
The Alaska moose population has declined in recent years. For example, in one 23,000 square miles area Unit 13, once considered the best moose herd in the state the moose population reached a high of 27,500 in the fall of 1988. In 2000, the fall population in that unit was 9,000 moose.
A hot issue is why the moose population is declining in many areas. Legal hunters harvest only about 3% the annual kill. It's not their fault.
Predators take a number of moose, especially calves. There is a predator control program in place, and it is expanding. Many argue that habitat is the key.
Wildfires normally preserve the shrubby habitat moose need to survive. Increased efficiency in controlling fires means more adult trees and less moose browse. Hungry moose in turn move into areas that can sustain them, which today means urban areas and right-of-ways along railroad tracks and highways.
Some of the best moose habitat is near roads. This last year, with a record snowfall, there were 1322 moose-vehicle crashes in Alaska. Cars kill some 600 moose every year.
A car never wins in a collision with a moose. Moose-car collisions this year resulted in over $18 million in damage.
One in four moose-car collisions results in serious human injury. Such collisions kill 1-3 people a year, and injure at least 100 more.
In 1990 trains killed 771 moose. That number has been falling as rural moose populations plummet and moose move into urban areas.
An adult moose must eat about 40 pounds of browse a day: twigs and shrubs in winter, and just about anything green in summer. They like water lilies in part because an adult moose needs to drink a lot of water, submersion keeps the flies off, and certain trace elements are found in aquatic vegetation.
When feed is scarce moose prune out the forest understory up to eight feet high. Since the adults have the greatest reach advantage to browse, the younger, shorter moose get short-changed and starve first in bad winters.
Food scarcity also effects reproduction. A healthy, well-fed cow moose will have twins as much as 75% of the time. Triplets are not uncommon. A cow with little to eat will have one, or maybe no calves.
The urban moose
All across Alaska moose have become urbanites. When moose move into town, their behavior changes. They lose their fear of man. In some areas in Alaska they now have moose doing dumpster diving. Need I repeat that a cow moose with calves is more aggressive than a sow bear with cubs?
Relocating moose back to the wilds makes sense, but it is costly $1500 to $2500 per moose too costly for Alaska Fish and Game to do on any scale. So, it has been necessary for police officers to shoot nuisance moose. What a sad waste.
Enter The Alaska Moose Federation, a new organization created to make Alaska a better place for people and moose.
According to AMF Chairman Gary Olson, the Federation's plan is three-fold: create more suitable moose habitat in wild areas through controlled burns, establish fences and other protections for moose along roads and railroads, and relocate urban moose.
The first two parts of the plan are not contested. Habitat is the key to wildlife success. Moose relocation, however, has taken a lot more selling.
Moose seem to be pretty durable. When you shoot a moose with a tranquilizer dart, the animal is so large that it may not even fall down. The sedated moose may just stand there and allow you to herd it into a cattle trailer and transport it someplace away from town.
The relocation survival rate is fairly high. I've spoken with biologists in other states who assure me that the big guys aren't fragile like deer.
Moose calves from South-central Alaska were successfully transplanted to the Copper River Delta in the 1940s and '50s, but two attempts to stock moose in Kodiak failed. Bears seem to be a likely reason why. Olson believes technology has improved enough that the proposed efforts would be largely successful.
The Governor, The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Federation of Natives, Anchorage public schools, several mayors, the Anchorage Police, the Alaska Zoo, The Alaska Board of Game, insurance companies, private industries, numerous state legislators and US Senator Lisa Murkowski have all voiced their support of the Alaska Moose Federation.
Even though moose relocation is expensive, the Moose federation says "no problem." They will raise the money themselves.
For a private organization to step in and take responsibility for something that state fish and game normally handles has required special legislation. Wednesday, June 16, Governor Frank Murkowski will sign into law SB#329, which will permit the Alaska Moose Federation, and/or other qualified organizations, to conduct relocations.
In recent years sportsmen and native groups in Alaska have often been at odds about the rights of subsistence hunters. In light of this history of disagreement, the fact that the statewide native organizations have come out in strong support of SB 329, marks a step toward healing.
As Association of Village Council Presidents Chairman, Ivan M. Ivan, states in a recent letter endorsing SB 329 and the work of the Alaska Moose Federation, "It cannot be over-emphasized how important moose are in providing subsistence and personal use needs throughout our state we strongly urge your support of SB 329."
As you might expect, the Alaska Moose Federation is seeking support to get their moose conservation program up and running. July 7 they will be holding a fund-raising golf tournament and auction.
You probably guessed it the Moose Run Golf Course, which is the world's northernmost 36-hole golf course.
Rumor has it they don't have golf carts at Moose Run. You ride moose around the course. I'll tell if it's true when I get back from the golf tournament.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.
To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.