Moose in Game Management Unit 15A on the Kenai Peninsula are entering the winter in bad condition, said Thomas McDonough, a Homer-based research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“These 15A moose are supposed to be at their peak condition around this time of year,” McDonough said.
He suspects the moose in 15A — which spans roughly from the Sterling Highway north to the end of the Peninsula — will do poorly over the winter.
McDonough returned last week from about three weeks recapturing cows collared with tracking devices in Management Units 15A and 15C as part of Fish and Game’s on-going moose study. The study examines the moose populations’ survival and reproduction rates to potentially justify future predator control measures in those management units, according to a study document.
The 34 cows Fish and Game biologist recaptured in 15A had low levels of fat and muscle content, McDonough said. That is a problem, because 15A has bad winter-time food for moose, he said.
“When animals go through a winter when food is limited, they not only burn up fat but they can metabolize protein, or muscle, as well,” he said.
When a moose burns through its fat and muscle reserves, its offspring suffer. The fatter a cow is, the more likely it is to conceive, develop a healthy fetus and birth a calf that will survive the winter, McDonough said.
If fewer calves are born or survive the winter, the overall moose population will drop, Fish and Game Kenai Area Wildlife Biologist Jeff Selinger said, in an October interview.
The last census in 15A, conducted spring 2008, counted 1,825 to 2,352 moose.
The 35 moose biologists recaptured in 15C, however, were in better condition, McDonough said.
The last census in 15C — encompassing the area south of Tustumena Lake and west of the Kenai Fjords National Park — counted 2,642 to 3,196 moose. It was conducted in 2010.
Snow levels will also affect the moose’s survival chances through the winter, particularly the calves.
“Once you get snow that typically exceeds the chest height of a calf, then you start having a higher level of calf mortality and nutritional stress,” McDonough said, “because a lot of the available browse that would normally be available is covered up by snow, and it’s harder to walk through deep snow.”
But the bottom line for moose in 15A: they are in trouble either way, said McDonough, because their winter range is bad.
McDonough also collected data on cow pregnancy, another method for measuring a cow’s health. Those results have not yet been analyzed. He expects to have them in a couple of weeks.
Biologists will likely continue collecting data in units 15A and 15C for the next couple of years, McDonough said. Until then, further information will come in waves as data is collected and analyzed.
McDonough will present study findings at the March Board of Game meeting.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.