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Numbers say 15A moose population low, browse-creating fires not a solution, KNWR says

No easy remedy

Posted: March 14, 2013 - 8:55pm  |  Updated: March 16, 2013 - 9:36pm

Poor moose habitat in Game Management Unit 15A is responsible for the area’s diminished moose population — and it is not likely to improve anytime soon, a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge official said.

In a moose census of units 15A and 15C, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists noted a slight decline in 15A moose populations, according to the census data released last week.

In unit 15A — which spans roughly from the Sterling Highway north to the Kenai Peninsula’s edge — biologists counted 1,600 moose, a slight departure from the 1,825 to 2,352 moose counted in a 2008 census, said Thomas McDonough, a Homer-based biologist for Fish and Game and the census’s lead investigator.

In unit 15C, which covers all areas south of Tustumena Lake and west of Kenai Mountains, biologists counted 3,200 moose, up from the 2010 census’s 2,642 to 3,196 moose, McDonough said.

While some variability is expected in the moose populations — and McDonough does not consider the recent fluctuations exceptional — it is clear that 15A moose are in poor condition, he said.

The Alaska Board of Game will meet at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center from March 15-19 to discuss Fish and Game moose, brown bear and wolf management. Among biologists it is common knowledge wildland fire is the best remedy for poor moose habitat, however the conducive conditions do not currently exist, said Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager. Those at the meeting the Board of Game will discuss other options — including intensive management strategies — for increasing the moose population in 15A.

In early December, Fish and Game biologists recaptured 34 moose cows collared with tracking units in 15A. All the cows captured had low levels of fat and muscle content, reducing their likelihood of conceiving, developing and giving birth to a healthy calf that could survive the winter, said Jeff Selinger, a Kenai-based biologist for Fish and Game.

With fewer calves being born or living through the winter, the overall moose population will drop. The major factor preventing a healthy moose population in 15A is its poor habitat — namely, its winter-time browse, Selinger said.

The best way to improve moose browse it with large-scale, hot-burning fires, he said.

“That’s the most effective way to turn over your habitat,” he said.

The right type of fire burns the earth to the mineral soil, providing for new hardwood growth, ideal browse for moose, he said.

However, Loranger said a fire of the necessary magnitude to improve the 15A habitat and increase the area’s moose population is unlikely.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns nearly all the land in 15A, so fire management of that land is under federal mandate.

Two forest fires in 1947 and 1969 collectively burned roughly 380,000 acres, and moose populations spiked the years following, Loranger said.

But as the Peninsula has grown over the years, forest fires of that magnitude have become increasingly dangerous to cities and homes, he said.

In the past 15 years the Refuge has managed nine wildland fires in 15B and 15C areas, burning roughly 43,000 acres. However, anything of the 1947 or 1969 forest fire size is out of the question, he said.

“The 1969 burn event then was such a threat to local communities that it was the most expensive fire suppression event in the U.S. up to that point,” Loranger said.

He said the Refuge, in cooperation with other agencies, would extinguish a fire of that size.

“We don’t want to see a fire like that,” he said. “It could be highly threatening to the communities. Nobody wants a fire that’s going to destroy homes.”

While the Refuge has tried to improve moose habit in 15A through mechanical manipulation to refresh plant life, the process is too expensive and produces limited results, he said.

The Refuge now focuses on prescribed burns, but the forest must be dry enough to burn to the mineral soil, fostering new hardwood growth, he said.

But the necessary conditions are rare.

“They don’t occur at all in our wettest summers, and may occur only for very brief periods of time in many summers with above average or even average rainfall,” he said.

The Refuge also has to consider the agencies it needs to cooperate with to control a prescribed burn, he said. During years of high fire activity in the state, firefighting resources are often occupied with other fires, he said.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct an error. In the past, 15 years the Refuge has managed nine wildland fires in 15B and 15C areas, burning roughly 43,000 acres.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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