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Questions & Answers about Moose, Wolves, and Bears in the McGrath Area
State of Alaska / ADF&G / Division of Wildlife Conservation
1. What is the problem in the McGrath Area (Game Management Unit 19D East)?
People in the communities of McGrath, Nikolai, Takotna, Medfra, and Telida are not able to harvest the number of moose they need for food. Local people, who depend on moose to feed their families, have asked the Governor, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Board of Game for help.
The Department estimates that people in Unit 19D East need a harvest of about 140 moose per year for food. The Alaska Board of Game established a harvest objective of 130-150 moose in Unit 19D East. At present, the moose population is supporting a harvest of about 80-90 moose.
The problem is that people need to harvest more moose than can be provided by the moose population in the McGrath area each year. Enough calves are born, but most of them are being killed by bears and wolves during their first few months of life.
2. Didn't recent surveys indicate more moose in the McGrath area than originally thought, and doesn't this solve the problem of low harvests?
A moose population survey conducted in November 2000, indicated very few moose in the area. When compared with previous estimates in 1996 and 1999, it appeared that moose numbers had dropped dramatically over the past decade, to one of the lowest population densities ever documented. Reports and other documents written before October, 2001, made reference to this apparent decline. A more intensive survey conducted in October 2001 showed more moose in the area than the 2000 survey indicated. However, this density is still relatively low and it is unlikely that the population will increase on its own or support a harvest of 130-150 moose. The problem of low moose harvest in this area still exists, and is likely to persist indefinitely.
3. Is this problem the result of people killing too many moose?
Yes and no. Even though the number of moose in the vicinity of McGrath is higher than originally thought, it is still low enough that the harvest of bulls by hunters is causing a low bull:cow ratio in that area. The replacement of new bulls into the population is low because bears kill many calves, and wolves kill many calves and adults.
4. How do bears and wolves affect moose numbers?
Black and grizzly bears kill many young moose calves (those that are 1-10 weeks old). Grizzly bears also kill some adult moose during spring and summer. Wolves kill calves and adults throughout the year. Together, bears and wolves kill most of the calves that are born, and many yearlings and adults as well. This keeps the moose population at a low level and prevents moose from increasing.
5. Is there a management plan for Unit 19D East, how was it developed and what is its status?
Department staff published a management plan for Unit 19D East in 2001 based on recommendations from Governor Knowles' "Adaptive Wildlife Management Team" (AWMT). The six members of the AWMT (from urban and rural backgrounds) met several times over a period of about 12 months to discuss management strategies and options. Their recommendations were submitted to ADF&G Commissioner Frank Rue for consideration, and primarily focused on temporary reductions in wolf and bear predation as well as temporary suspension of moose hunting. The Department's plan included predator control, restrictions to hunting, and an intensive monitoring program to scientifically document the effectiveness of the proposed intensive management actions.
The plan was suspended before it went into effect when October 2001 moose surveys indicated a higher density of moose than previously thought. At that point, it was decided additional field studies and further analyses of data were needed before intensive management actions were justified.
6. What is "adaptive wildlife management?"
There are several definitions of "adaptive wildlife management." As it is used in this situation, it means a management action based on a formalized, closely monitored process of trial and error. Models and assumptions are stated in advance. As information is collected during the course of the management action, the models and assumptions, and management actions are refined.
7. Did the Adaptive Wildlife Management Team consider many ideas?
Yes, the team considered many different options to help rebuild the moose population. The group evaluated several options in terms of feasibility, potential for success, and cost. Examples of options that were not recommended included importing moose from the Anchorage area (logistically impractical), using poison for predators (not legal and not species-specific), and transporting local hunters to other areas (too expensive and logistically impractical).
8. If we don't interfere, won't "nature take its course?"
Yes, but that won't help the population of moose increase or provide more moose for hunters.
Studies on predator/prey relationships and management experience in Alaska and elsewhere during the last three decades have shown that wolf and bear predation usually keeps moose populations at low levels even where hunting is minimal and where there is enough food to support many more moose. Although moose numbers may fluctuate slightly, the population cannot increase to a higher level until substantially more calves survive to adulthood. The combination of wolf and bear predation on low-density moose populations prevents them from increasing. If predation is reduced, moose populations can increase and/or additional moose can be harvested by people. However, if predator populations increase again to high levels, moose numbers will likely decline again, resulting in lower harvests.
9. What will happen if nothing is done?
The population level and the number of bulls will remain low because relatively few calves will survive to adulthood. If so, allowable harvest will have to be kept at low levels indefinitely.
10. Would temporarily restricting the harvest of moose solve the problem?
Restricting the harvest of moose would slowly cause the bull:cow ratio to increase, but once normal harvest was resumed, the situation would likely repeat itself.
11. Some people have asked for predator control. Isn't this used just to provide more moose for hunters to kill?
Yes, but hunting is an important way for Alaskans to provide food for their families. This is especially true in rural areas like Unit 19D where there are no large grocery stores, no roads and where shipping costs make food very expensive. Salmon runs in this area have also declined in recent years.
12. Isn't predator control the reason wolves are a threatened species in some of the continental 48 states?
The primary reason wolves no longer inhabit most of the contiguous 48 states is because of many years of concerted efforts to eradicate them. Wolves were eliminated from all of the contiguous United States except Minnesota because they threatened livestock and because their prey animals (deer, elk, and bison) were also reduced to very low levels by the 1880s. Today, however, wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho, and are expanding rapidly into Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Michigan and nearby states.
The proposed Unit 19D East management experiment is not an eradication program and is in no way comparable to programs that attempted (or succeeded) to permanently eliminate wolves decades ago. Almost all of Alaska is suitable wolf habitat, wolves are thriving, and the state has a commitment to maintaining wolf populations in the future.
13. Couldn't you solve the problem by improving habitat for moose?
In some situations improving habitat can help moose numbers increase. However, research conducted in Unit 19D East indicates that habitat quantity and quality are not limiting the moose population. Instead, the high level of wolf and bear predation is preventing an increase in the numbers of moose or an increase in the level of harvest. Improving and maintaining habitat for moose is important for the future well-being of moose in Unit 19D East and could play an important role in helping to sustain higher levels of harvest. The Department is working with state and federal agencies and private land owners to restore wild fire in the ecosystem so it can provide long-term benefits to moose and other wildlife populations. The use of prescribed fire has begun, and other habitat enhancement techniques are under consideration as well.
14. Why not let trappers take more wolves and hunters take more bears?
The Board of Game liberalized hunting and trapping regulations for wolves, and hunting regulations for bears in recent years in Unit 19D East. Harvests have increased slightly and may increase further, but probably not much more. Liberalizing current regulations can help increase harvests significantly in areas with roads accessible by large numbers of hunters and trappers. But Unit 19D East is not connected to a road system and has a relatively small number of hunters and trappers. As a result, it is unlikely that liberalized regulations alone will be enough to change the current situation of low moose numbers, high predation rates, and low harvests by humans. If intensive management actions are used, higher wolf and bear harvests will be necessary to maintain higher moose harvests in the long run.
15. What is Fish and Game doing now?
At the present time moose hunting is controlled by registration permit to allow the Department to closely monitor the harvest.
Currently the Department is conducting research to improve our understanding of predation by bears and wolves on moose. The Department is also researching seasonal moose movements, physical condition of moose, and habitat use and quality. Data collected during 2001 and 2002 show that the moose population is relatively stable and that wolves and bears kill nearly two-thirds of all moose calves born each year. Local hunters are being encouraged to harvest more bears, particularly black bears, in the vicinity of McGrath, Takotna, and Nikolai. The Department conducted bear baiting clinics in this area. Local trappers are also being encouraged to take more wolves. The harvest is being closely monitored.
16. How are decisions made about wildlife, and how can I be involved?
The public influences decisions about wildlife management primarily through the Board of Game and the Department. Regulatory proposals and public testimony (verbal and written) can be presented to the Board for consideration at their regularly scheduled meetings. The public can contact the Department to share concerns, ask questions or make suggestions.