Game board faces challenges on Nelchina moose, caribou

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The problem is simple: Too many moose and caribou in the Nelchina Basin are being killed by non-human hunters, leaving not enough to satisfy the demands of people in one of the state's most popular hunting areas. But as the Alaska Board of Game is discovering, the problem is easier to define than solve.

On Thursday, the board heard an alarming story of the decline, with moose and caribou populations dropping by half in the last decade. But their options for reversing those trends are limited.

The easiest and most effective solution, say state biologists, is to allow hunters to kill more wolves by spotting them from planes, then landing and shooting them. But that's a practice the public won't tolerate.

Killing more bears could help, but only if enough are shot and the right ones, because only some prey on moose and caribou.

Setting fires to improve moose and caribou habitat could help, but a blaze could get out of control and threaten homes or cabins.

''It certainly is a challenge,'' state game biologist Bob Tobey told the board.

The problem in Nelchina is not unique. Residents from McGrath to Bethel to Mat-Su want the board's help in areas where they say there are too many predators. But the Nelchina area is by far the most popular area for hunters.

Within a few hours drive of Anchorage and Fairbanks, and relatively easy to hunt because of the open tundra, the area serves as a sort of wild breadbasket for road system residents. Thousands hunt the rolling country off the Denali Highway each year in hopes of filling their freezers. Many more would like to.

Last year, 16,000 people applied for permits to hunt Nelchina caribou, but only 2,000 got permits. That's down from 10,000 a few years ago, when the herd was much larger.

The caribou population was about 50,000 a few years ago, but has now dropped below 30,000. Moose numbers in one of the most heavily hunted regions just north of the Denali Highway have dropped from nearly 3,500 in 1994 to fewer than 1,700 last year.

Biologists attribute the decline to a combination of harsh winters, more predators and, in the case of the caribou, the lingering effects of overgrazing when the herd was large.

But they single out wolves, whose population more than doubled since the mid-1980s from 250 to nearly 550. The bear population has stayed relatively stable.

Tobey, the area biologist, blames the state's restrictions on land-and-shoot hunting for the rise in wolves. The next easiest hunting method -- tracking wolves by snowmachine -- is not nearly as effective, he said.

But the public has twice voted to ban land-and-shoot hunting.

Other measures, such as encouraging people to shoot more bears, could help reduce predation. But hunters can't legally shoot sows with cubs, so they tend to shoot adult boars, the same bears most likely to prey on cubs.

Taking out boars may also encourage bears from adjoining lands to move into the Nelchina area, Tobey said.

''We know killing a large number (of bears) will affect moose survival, but we don't know if a small number will,'' Tobey said.

Game Board member Mike Fleagle of McGrath argued the state should manage the area for the ''high human harvest'' levels required under the state's intensive management law. But Ben Grussendorf of Sitka said the board needed to set lower goals, especially since wildlife managers have such limited options.

If the board sets the number too high, he said, ''we may be doomed to failure.''

The Board is meeting in Anchorage through Sunday.

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