The state Board of Game continues its meeting in Kenai this week. Beginning last Friday, the Board heard research updates from area biologists and two days of public testimony. Dwindling moose numbers on the central Kenai Peninsula and what to do about it was a central topic as the meeting got underway.
The latest population estimate for moose on the central peninsula showed about 1,600 animals. That’s in management unit 15-A, which covers the area between Cooper Landing and Kenai and everything north of the Kenai River.
Thomas McDonough is the Assistant Area Biologist for the Division of Wildlife Conservation on the Peninsula. He reported to the Board about ongoing studies which point to a widely accepted reason for why moose numbers in the area have been steadily declining over the past several years.
“We typically see a peak in response of moose densities after a fire, typically 15-20 years post-fire. The population tends to return down to pre-fire densities about 40 years post-fire and it’s been more than 40 years since we’ve had a significant fire in 15A,” McDonough said.
Providing moose suitable habitat becomes more of a challenge as the scale of wild fires diminishes. In the past, mechanical manipulation of the habitat, cutting down trees, has been used, but as Kenai Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger explained, the problem again is scale. The refuge encompasses parts of all three management areas on the western peninsula and so has a large role in providing good habitat, but Loranger says their options are somewhat limited.
“We’re not going to recreate, mechanically or through prescribed burning, given the limitations that are associated with either of those, anything close to… those large fires. That’s just a reality,” Loranger said.
“The only thing that will create that amount of habitat on the landscape is large fires on the landscape and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to allow that to happen. What we feel is the best opportunity, the best bang for your buck if you want to put it that way, is in safely managing wild land fires where and when we can do so,” he said.
The research McDonough presented was based on a study that began in March of 2012, when 50 moose were collared and tracked in unit 15-A and showed a 92 percent survival rate over the course of the year. While determining the ultimate or final cause of mortality is difficult, in several instances a predator, typically a brown bear, was a likely cause of death. In some areas, the mortality rate for moose cows is as high as 16%.
One avenue to curb the decline that had support of many who offered public testimony and Board Chair Ted Spraker, is to widen the scope of predator control; that is, taking more wolves and brown bears before they can get to the remaining moose population, especially on the refuge.
The board was set to take up proposals Monday afternoon including one to retain current harvest regulations for moose through 2014 and another that would suspend aerial taking of wolves in 15-A and modify population and harvest objectives for moose.
In our next story, we’ll see how the board decided on these measures and learn more about an increasing brown bear population on the Kenai Peninsula. The Board of Game is scheduled to adjourn after its meeting Tuesday.