Most moose hunters will be dining on something else after the hunt

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Come the end of the hunting season in September, most Alaska moose hunters will have one thing in common.

They'll be eating something other than moose meat -- most likely beef, chicken or turkey.

Why do most moose hunters fail?

The answer might have something to do with both the moose as an underrated hunting challenge and with Alaska as an overrated hunting destination. Despite the state's reputation for bountiful wildlife, Alaska only has about 150,000 moose.

British Columbia has more. Newfoundland, Canada, has almost as many. Both Canadian provinces are significantly smaller than Alaska, too, meaning that they also have moose densities significantly higher.

That means the moose are easier to find. As a general rule, the greater the number of moose in any given area, the better the odds a hunter will see one of them.

Alaska, unfortunately, has few areas with high concentrations of moose.

Outside of predator-free-zones around urban areas, densities of Alaska moose are usually low. Even on ''excellent'' range in the sub-arctic, densities will only average only 1 to 2 1/2 moose per square mile, according to ''Ecology and Management of the North American Moose.''

The very best range on the Kenai Peninsula might have 5 to 10 moose per square mile. Top moose range in Canada, the Lower 48 or Scandinavia can have population densities as much as five times greater than that.

And the difference between one moose per square mile and 20 moose per square mile is huge. Think of it as the difference between finding a needle in a haystack and locating the meat counter at your local supermarket. The difficulty of finding moose in Alaska was probably one of the reasons early Alaskans often refused to waste time hunting the big animals.

''The importance of the big-game snare in the Athapaskan (culture) is not fully appreciated,'' wrote R. A. McKennan of Yale after studying the practices of early Alaska hunters. ''In the days of the bow and arrow, (the snare) was the most effective method for securing game.... Among the Kutchin (northwestern Yukon Territory and northeastern Alaska Indians), moose were more generally snared than shot.''

When early Alaskans did hunt moose, they often chose to pursue them with scent-tracking dogs, a practice now prohibited, or went ''crusting.'' Crusting, the running of moose in the spring, was a popular early hunting technique all across North America.

''...The young men took advantage of the mornings, when the snow was hard crusted over, and ran down many moose;'' observed S. Hearne, ''for in these situations a man with a good pair of snowshoes will scarely make any impression on the snow, while the moose... will break through at every step up to the belly. . ..The moose are so tenderfooted and so short-winded that a good runner will generally tire them in less than a day and very frequently in six or eight hours.''

Run to near exhaustion, these moose were often killed with a knife lashed to the end of a long stick to make a spear.

Wild moose make effective use of their big noses to smell everything and their big ears to hear everything. Were that not enough bad news for hunters, these moose also tend to live in the thickest willow thickets. People who know about how hard it is to hunt moose in these kind of conditions tend to avoid them. U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Bill Schuster in Seward, for instance, heads for the more open terrain of the Alaska Interior every year to do his moose hunting.

In good years, one out of five Kenai Peninsula moose hunters might get a moose. A handful will do it on skill. The rest get lucky. The story is much the same all over the region.

Four-wheeler trails spinning off the Glenn and Denali highways, combined with several larger rivers and the Lake Louise system, allow hunters to spread out across tens of hundreds of square miles. Despite that, GMU 13 hunters killed only 390 moose, a success rate of 13 percent.

Compare that to some place with really good moose hunting, like Norway. The Norwegian government issued 44,437 moose hunting licenses in 2001, and Norwegian hunters killed 37,300 moose. The small province of Telemark alone had a harvest of 4,463.

The kill for the entire Kenai was about 15 percent of that, but assistant Kenai area wildlife biologist Gino Del Frate in Homer said there is good news this year. A moose census on the southern Peninsula in February showed populations up 10 percent from a year ago. Del Frate says mild winters back-to-back could account for most of that increase.

A fairly decent season on the Kenai sees a couple thousand moose hunters killing about 600 bulls. Nearly two-thirds of them will be yearlings -- the so-called spike-forks that fall in one of the two categories for legal bulls.

The other legals are bulls with antlers more than 50 inches wide or with three brow ties on at least one side of their antlers. Kenai moose hunters find about 200 of those big-bodied animals every year.

The Tanana River Flats in Game Management Unit 20A near Fairbanks have been one of the best bets in recent years. Fairbanks Fish and Game biologist Cathy Harms said that almost one in three hunters got a moose there last year -- the highest success rate of any accessible area in the state.

Hunters might be able to find better hunting in Northwest Alaska or along the Alaska Peninsula, but transportation costs -- especially to fly meat home -- run into the thousands of dollars.

Anchorage hunters should be able to do nearly that well in the Matansuka-Susitna Valley. Moose populations are relatively high around Wasilla and west to the Susitna River. Assistant area wildlife biologist Tom McDonough calls that area ''a bright spot.'' A fall survey last year showed the moose population up 15 percent in the area and ''that's been backed up by nuisance moose calls.''

''There sure were a lot of road kills last winter,'' he added.

Despite modest snowfall, motorists killed 250 moose in the area, the third highest kill ever, McDonough said. He expects that was mainly a reflection of a large population, and while it did trim the size of the moose population, hunted shouldn't be affected.

Biologists expect the area to have the best moose hunting in all of Southcentral this year. Fish and Game issued a couple hundred drawing permits for cow moose, and those hunters shouldn't have much trouble filling their tags.

Others will have to work harder because, as Del Frate notes, while the area has good numbers of moose ''there's also 60,000 people living in the Mat Valley now.''

He also suggested hunters might find the best hunting close to the urbanized part of the Valley, where human activity tends to displace bears and wolves. That allows for a big bulge in the moose population.

Even there, though, hunters will need to work for their food.

Rogers said he sees one noticeable difference between successful hunters and those who are unsuccessful: ''They're not patient.''

For the patient, moose hunting can be relatively easy. Find an area of good moose habitat. Moose will give it away with a lot of browsed off willow and fireweed, beaten down trails and frequent piles of cow-pie like spoor. Then wait.

Anyone who waits long enough in one place in good moose habitat will eventually see a moose.

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