This story was edited to correct an error. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s moose calf mortality study referenced in the story found that brown bear killed 21, or 39 percent, of the total 54 calves collared only in Game Management Unit 15C. Of the total collared calves, 83 percent died. The study did not include unit 15A. The Clarion regrets the error.
The Kenai Peninsula’s moose population is dwindling and its predators are thriving, said many area residents who testified at the Alaska Board of Game meeting held in Kenai March 15-19.
“We’ve got to do whatever we can to keep our moose around as long as we can,” said Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee.
Peninsula residents asked the board to liberalize the wolf and brown bear hunt to safeguard the declining moose population and provide for greater hunting opportunity.
Other residents said they were concerned about the Peninsula’s moose carrying capacity, brown bears contesting black bear baiting sites, snowshoe hares eating available moose browse and low ptarmigan populations.
Many biologists and residents contend that limited moose browse is a major factor in the Peninsula’s declining moose populations, but Bruce Willard, of Homer, said that is not the case.
“The top of the hills have always had moose on it,” Willard said. But now, he said, if you see a single wolf on the hill, all the moose are gone from the area by the spring.
Habitat is not the limiting factor — predators are, he said. There is moose browse on the Peninsula, but wolves and brown bear are keeping the moose from it.
As a result, moose populations are moving closer to urban areas where predators do not contest their browse, said Steve Meyer, a member of the Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee.
There is, however, significant browse limitations in Game Management Unit 15A, which spans roughly from the Sterling Highway north to the Peninsula’s edge, but Meyer said that is only part of the picture.
“It’s a two-pronged thing,” Meyer said. “Yes we need wildfires (to bring back browse) but we need predator control, too.”
Nikiski resident Christine Cunningham said she often hikes in the wilderness and is seeing fewer signs of moose and more signs of wolves.
She agreed with Meyer that predators are pushing the moose into town. While driving to the board meeting Saturday she counted 12 moose starving along the road, where road-side brush clearing has produced fresh browse.
“It’s difficult to watch moose struggling along the road system,” she said.
Dave Blossom, of Kasilof, said he suspects the Alaska Department of Fish and Game moose population estimates are too high.
The most recent Fish and Game moose census estimated 1,600 moose in unit 15A and 3,200 moose in unit 15C, which covers all areas south of Tustumena Lake and west of the Kenai Mountains.
“I watch people all the time question their numbers,” he said.
In unit 15A, Bob Ermold, vice-chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee, said moose populations have been below intensive management objectives for 13 years, and predators are the immediate cause for the population’s decline.
“We need to do something to stop the bleed,” Ermold said.
The board did reauthorize intensive management — or targeted predator killing — in units 15A and 15C, but Fish and Game has to pull the trigger. Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division Director, said the department is ready to consider targeted wolf killing in unit 15A.
A recent Fish and Game wolf census estimated 47 to 50 wolves in unit 15A and 35 to 40 wolves in unit 15C. Jeff Selinger, Fish and Game Kenai area wildlife biologist, said there has been no major fluctuations in the populations.
Another major moose predator are brown bears, area residents said. An October Fish and Game study supports their claim; it found that brown bears killed 21, or 39 percent, of the total 54 calves collared in unit 15C.
Following the Peninsula’s new brown bear population estimate — more than twice the old figure — residents said the department now had the science to back a liberalized brown bear hunt that had in the past been restricted through a drawing permit registration.
Steve Vanek, the Ninilchick Advisory Committee secretary, said the new brown bear population estimate — 624 — ought to allow for a much greater harvest.
“If 250-300 brown bears is a good population ... and now we’ve got (a range of) 500-800 it looks to me like we could whack off 200-300 brown bears,” Vanek said.
Christine Ermold said the increased bear activity is causing problems for schools. Christine Ermold is the principal of Cooper Landing School and Sterling Elementary and Bob Ermold’s wife. She said she sometimes receives multiple calls in a day about brown bears near the school, and, because of that, the school has had to close certain activities.
“There are some of our activities that if we were to do them now we would (be) guaranteed to encounter bears,” she said.
She said the brown bears need to be culled.
Black bear baiters said the brown bears are a problem, too.
Soldotna resident Kenny Bingaman said black bear meat is a major source of spring-time meat, but, since brown bears started squatting at his bait sites in Clam Gulch, his black bear harvest has been drastically reduced.
Following testimony in favor of increasing brown bear harvest, the board passed a proposal to open a Sept. 1 through May 31 registration brown bear hunt that will allow for brown bear harvest over contested black bear baiting sites and distribute brown bear baiting and scent luring permits.
The changes affect units 7 and 15. Unit 7 spans the Kenai Mountains east, including Cooper Landing and Hope.
This story has been edited to correct an error.