When he stepped down from the truck the moose calf was already laying in the snow under a black spruce.
The Kenai Merit Inn superintendent and a Kenai Police Department officer stood around the moose, the officer holstering his gun.
“He’d been around at least once a week,” said Lisa Dorrough, watching with her friend from the apartment’s porch behind the Merit Inn.
“From what I hear, it lost its mother,” her friend, Kevin Jackson said.
The two had come out of their apartment when they heard the gunshot.
“This time of year you just hope they pull through,” said officer Dan Smith, looking at the calf in the snow. “But there’s just not enough food around.”
The day before, the police had to scare off the calf from the front of The Way Café, said the inn’s apartment superintendant, Jimmy Summers. Today, he said, the moose wouldn’t get up.
“Yesterday was extremely cold, so I’m sure that’s what zapped him,” he said.
Kurt Strausbaugh, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife technician, closed the truck door and walked up to the dead calf.
“Feel that bone?” he said, kneeling and placing his hand on the calf’s rump. “That should be rounded through with fat.”
He said starving calves are often put down.
“It’s awful,” he said.
To lose more than a dozen moose calves to starvation during a non-extreme winter with “decent” winter-time moose browse is a “profound loss,” said Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game.
But more than three times that many moose have died since February and nearly all of them were calves, just like the one behind the Merit Inn, Strausbaugh said.
Last winter was more severe. The deaths started earlier, but the Kenai Peninsula is still on track for the same amount of winter moose mortalities, he said.
Selinger said more moose could be dying, too, but it is difficult to document their deaths if they are off the road system, not in town or on someone’s property.
Many area residents said at a recent Alaska Board of Game meeting in Kenai that predators — brown bear and wolves — are the cause for the declining moose population in game management unit 15A, which spans from roughly the Sterling Highway north to the Peninsula’s edge.
But, Selinger said scarce winter-time moose browse is the bigger killer.
He said the evidence is on the side of the road.
“The area’s (browse is) overharvested. When you start driving around, try to look at it with that eye,” he said. “If I’m a moose, what the hell is there to eat?”
Moose rely primarily on willows, cotton woods and birches for food — the cambium layer in the thin shoots provide the nutrition — but moose have already chewed the plants to their trunks along all the roads, he said. They look like gnarled stumps; they should instead have tendrils of shoots jutting from them, he said.
Each day a moose has to fill its stomach with those shoots or it will begin to lose body fat, muscle and bone marrow fat, he said. A moose’s stomach is about the size of a 15-gallon garbage bag.
“Think about having to go out there and having to clip enough food to fill it up,” he said. “Every day they need to fill up that garbage bag and when they don’t they lose body condition.”
Strausbaugh harvests femur bones from the calves once they die to assess their body condition. The fat in the marrow is the last storage reserve, but all the calf femur bones have had limited, to no such reserves, he said.
“The only option is to starve, and that’s what they’re doing,” Selinger said. “Now we’re 44 years since the (1969) burn, so our habitat won’t carry more moose.”
Without large-scale habitat improvements — the type forest fires produce — unit 15A cannot carry more moose, he said.
And it’s worse when people feed the moose, Strausbaugh said. That’s when they need to be put down because they become aggressive, identifying the people as a source of food, he said.
Also, during this time of year when the moose are most stressed, feeding them can actually kill them, Selinger said.
There are bugs in a moose’s stomach that break down its food. The bugs change based on the moose’s diet, but it takes time, and when they are fed apples or hay their stomach bugs are knocked out of rhythm, he said.
Back behind the Merit Inn, Dorrough said nobody had been feeding their calf. It started slowing down after its mother was killed and the other adult moose traveling with them was hit by a car, she said.
“We watched the whole family die all in the last three weeks,” she said.
Dorrough and Jackson had turned away from the calf and were talking.
Summers was next to them on the porch. He looked back at the calf, its fur shivering in the wind.
“We named him ‘Baby,’” he said.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.