Lack of food thins out moose numbers

Posted: Monday, March 22, 2004

Spring is officially here, yet nature is still several weeks away from showing the first signs of any fresh, green foliage. As such, emaciated moose are becoming a common sight around the peninsula, with an unfortunate few succumbing to starvation.

"It's shaping up to be an average year for moose mortalities," said Jeff Selinger, the Kenai area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Many residents have witnessed weak, staggering moose wandering aimlessly in search of food on the side of roadways. A few unfortunate folks have even had the hoofed mammals drop dead on their front lawn.

Selinger acknowledged this sad reality, but explained it's all part of the natural cycle.

He said moose are similar to bears in that they spend the summer and early fall trying to eat as much as possible in an effort to put on fat for the winter. However, once winter comes, the trees drop their leaves and the snow flies, while moose instead of hibernating continue to spend the winter roaming around the woods in search of food.

"They're eating bark and twigs. It's a lot of bulk, but poor in nutritional energy, so they'll always loose weight through the winter," Selinger said. "There just isn't enough nutritious food for them to eat to keep up their energy reserves."

As winter persists, moose must use up stored fat reserves. After that's gone, they break down their own muscle mass, and once that starts to happen there's a good chance a moose will starve if green-up isn't right around the corner.

The first animals to succumb are those with the fewest energy reserves, and Selinger said those are the calves.

He said this occurs because calves allocate most of their food intake to growth and come into the fall much leaner than adults, making the calves especially vulnerable to starvation.

Despite how painful in can be to observe a moose calf in this condition, Selinger warned against trying to feed them.

"You'll just kill them quicker that way," he said.

Selinger said people who don't heed this advice, literally kill moose with kindness because the microbes in a moose's gut change slowly throughout the year to adapt to what they're consuming.

In winter, these microbes are attuned to breaking down a coarse, fibrous, woody diet. Any abrupt change such as from alfalfa, lettuce, fruit or vegetables will hurt the animals by sending their digestive system into chaos.

"They'll still die. It will just be with a full stomach," Selinger said.

In trying to make the most of a bad situation, Fish and Game does conduct research on moose that die. They ask anyone who has a moose die on their property to call in and report if the animal was an adult or a calf and its sex.

However, the moose's disposal is up to the owner of the property. Fish and Game does not retrieve the animals.

For more information or to report a moose, call 262-9368.

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