Another look at moose mortality numbers

Voices of the Peninsula

The Refuge Notebook in the Jan. 27 paper by John Morton caught my eye since I worked for the Department of Fish and Game as a Wildlife Biologist from 1974 to 2002, 24 of those years on the Kenai. I appreciate the time Dr. Morton took to research the literature for the piece but he could have added more data to complete the picture for our local moose management concerns. If his intent was to demonstrate the danger and human safety concerns plus the loss of moose, I agree. Working with others, we developed the “Give Moose a Brake” program following the severe winter of 1989/90, to make drivers more aware of the dangers involved in moose/vehicles collisions.

When I worked for ADF&G, I spent untold hours thinking about and discussing with colleagues ways to reduce road kills, and there are no “quick-fix” solutions. We considered the merits of reducing speed limits, road conditions and every other variable imaginable and the only common denominator was drivers must be vigilant.

We experimented with several methods that worked on whitetail deer such as “deer whistles”, noise and flashing lights but none proved reliable for moose. However, there were three methods that did produce favorable results. The most successful method was fencing highways. In addition to being expensive, fencing disrupts migration of animals and reduces access for people. The second method involved lights along the highway to increase visibility, however, installation and maintenance would again be very expensive. The third was to clear highway right-of-ways annually, in June, to remove moose browse and increase diver visibility. Widening the road sides coupled with habitat enhancement, away from roads, to short stop migrating moose was the only practicable and affordable method we could agree on to help drivers avoid moose. Additionally, since most of the road-kills occurred within a 15 mile radius of Soldotna, those sections of highway were the only ones that needed clearing. And it will not cost 14 million dollars.

The article also left some readers with the impression that vehicle/moose accidents are the “chief cause” of moose mortality other than hunting. Here’s some additional data from surveys and studies to think about:

* If the Kenai moose population is still around 7,000 animals, approximately 4,900 (70 percent) of those would be cows and about 3,920 (80 percent) of those cows would had bred the previous fall. Assuming even a low twinning rate of 16 percent (found in Unit 15A in 2011), resulting in an annual production of 4,547 calves.

* A calf moose mortality study on the Kenai revealed black bears killed 34 percent of the radio-collared calves suggesting approximately 1,546 calves peninsula wide, wolves killed 273 (6 percent) calves and brown bears killed another 273 (6 percent).

* Calf mortalities alone by these three predators equal about 2,092 (46 percent) calves born each spring (from late May to July 15).

* Using the average of 244 moose killed per year by vehicles, 134 (55 percent) are calves. Black bears alone (in the spring) are capable of killing that many calves in less than four days.

* Another study by the Fish and Wildlife Service showed wolf predation during winter was comprised of 47 percent calves and each pack (over 20 packs documented in November 2011) averaged one kill every 4.7 days and 75 percent of their kills were moose.

* Wolves alone kill four times the number of moose killed by vehicles each year and at least twice the number of adult cows.

* Reports of black bears killing adult moose are uncommon; however, brown bears prey on both calves and adults during their non-denning period, whereas, wolves prey on moose all year long.

Wildlife/vehicles accidents are a serious issue on the peninsula that needs to be addressed in an affordable and practicable manner. However, it clearly does not control the moose population’s trend compared to other known mortality factors, habitat and severe winters. Hunters reported harvesting an average of 516 moose (95 percent-plus bulls) per year over the past decade, compared to a 30 year average of 244 moose killed by vehicles. The reason why the human population has doubled on the peninsula and the road-killed moose has remained fairly constant is because the moose population is about half its former size.

Ted Spraker is a retired ADF&G Wildlife Biologist and current Vice Chair Alaska Board of Game.

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