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Finding the ‘silver bullet’

Board of Game mulls predator culling as a cure for declining moose numbers

Posted: March 16, 2013 - 9:14pm  |  Updated: May 21, 2013 - 8:12am
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 Kristy Tibbles, executive director of the Alaska Board of Game and Ted Spraker, chairman, chat with federal wildlife managers during a Board of Game meeting Friday March 15, 2013 the Kenai Convention & Visitors Bureau in Kenai, Alaska.    Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion
Kristy Tibbles, executive director of the Alaska Board of Game and Ted Spraker, chairman, chat with federal wildlife managers during a Board of Game meeting Friday March 15, 2013 the Kenai Convention & Visitors Bureau in Kenai, Alaska.

After more than two decades of absence from the Kenai Peninsula, the Alaska Board of Game met in Kenai to hear testimony from area residents concerned about declining moose populations and the unchecked growth of its predators.

About 60 people filled the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Friday for the board’s first of five meetings. At the meeting, the board asked Kenai National Wildlife Refuge officials what its fire policy is. The Refuge, a federal entity, manages the majority of land in Game Management Unit 15A.

Poor moose habitat in 15A — which spans roughly from the Sterling Highway north to the Peninsula’s edge — is the major source for the area’s declining moose numbers, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists agree.

The Refuge has a let-burn policy with wildland fires, except when the fires endanger the public, Refuge Manager Andy Loranger said. Today, wildland fires like the 1969 fire which yielded exceptional moose browse would be too great a threat to the public, and the Refuge would have to take action to extinguish it, Loranger said.

At Saturday’s meeting, many Peninsula residents asked the board to bolster the Peninsula moose populations and to enact intensive management strategies — or targeted predator killing — to cull moose predation.

Doug Blossom Jr. said there are too many predators on the Peninsula.

“Nowadays when my boys and I are on our horses in the woods and we hear a twig snap, it’s like, ‘Where’s the bear?’ not, ‘Where’s the moose,” Blossom said.

The Ninilchik resident said he even increased the caliber of his sidearm for protection. He used to carry a .44 magnum.

Blossom grew up hunting in the Caribou Hills, in unit 15C east of his town, and, although Fish and Game studies will disagree, moose populations have been plummeting over the past few years, he said.

“Those of us out there wouldn’t disagree,” Blossom said. “I don’t see moose staying. I do see a big increase in predators.”

Fish and Game needs to liberalize the brown bear hunt to address declining moose populations, Blossom said.

Many other area residents told similar stories, citing brown bear and wolves as moose predators that need to be targeted with intensive management strategies in units 15A and 15C.

The Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee and Central Peninsula Advisory Committee, representing the Ninilchik community, support proposal 160, which would open a year-round wolf hunting season in unit 7 and 15. Both advisory committees also voted against the first part of proposal 147, which would suspend aerial wolf killing in unit 15A.

However, the Homer Advisory Committee unanimously opposed proposal 160. It also unanimously supported proposal 147 to, in effect, suspend aerial wolf killing in unit 15A.

Chairman of the Homer Advisory Committee, Dave Lyon, said hunting wolves during the summer — if proposal 160 were enacted — would yield poor-quality hides and it is disrespectful to the animals.

Also, the proposal would not address wolves threatening livestock or pets because their killing is already justified under defense of life and property.

“We see no reason for this proposal,” Lyon said.

Addressing brown bear predation, Lyon said the Refuge’s new Peninsula brown bear population estimate — 624 — only opens the door for harvests to many user groups, not for widespread killing.

“The Homer (Advisory Committee) does not consider the current healthy brown bear number population on the Kenai Peninsula as something that needs to be dealt with,” Lyon said, reading from prepared material.

“If we manage them with restraint and good science we’ll be able to provide jobs for hunting guides and bear-viewing guides, pumping money into our economy,” he said.

Alaska Wildlife Alliance Director John Toppenberg also disagreed with enacting predator control.

Toppenberg, speaking for himself and not the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said he wants the board to solicit a larger cross-section of the public before it acts.

He said the board is already obligated by intensive management legislation and the state constitution mandating wildlife be managed for the benefit of all Alaskans.

“It is how you balance these at times conflicting concepts is what I would said is out of balance,” Toppenberg said, reading from prepared material.

For example, he said the board is “fixated” on targeted wolf killing.

“A few bad winters? Kill more wolves,” he said. “Habitat is degenerating? Kill more wolves. Bears are killing mostly moose cows? No problem, kill more wolves. ... Overhunting in some regions? Still no problem, kill more wolves.”

Moreover, he estimated that hundreds of wildlife scientists are opposed to targeted wolf killing.

Board Chairman Ted Spraker asked what other option the board could take.

“We understand all the limitations to (predator control,)” Spraker said. “But I think if you look at it carefully, there is actually some benefit to that.”

In unit 15A — a majority of which is federally-managed land where Fish and Game has little clout — the board has no other options, he said.

“We’re down to four moose a year taken last year and four moose taken this year,” he said. “This area in ... (1983), they had 368 bulls taken there, and I understand all the habitat’s changed and so forth.

“But knowing all those things,” he said, addressing Lyon, “did your (Advisory Committee) talk about what we could do, or should do?”

Lyon said the Homer Advisory Committee had not; it focused on concerns closer to the Homer area. He said the advisory committee was more concerned with the potential costs of aerial wolf control to Fish and Game and how effective, in the end, the effort would be. He said the advisory committee did not know of any immediate fix for unit 15A’s declining moose population.

“I think we’re both looking for the same silver bullet,” Spraker said.

The Board of Game will meet today at 9 a.m. in the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center to hear more public testimony and vote on Kodiak wildlife management proposals.

It will likely not address any Peninsula proposals until Monday or Tuesday due to the outpouring of public testimony.

The Board of Game has on the table Peninsula proposals addressing moose, brown bear and wolf management.

This story has been updated to correct a typographical error.

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

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