ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Sometimes now, moose hunter Larry Engel wonders whether it's worth it -- the getting up early, the tromping out into rainy fall weather, the analysis that must be done when finally, luckily, a moose is spotted.
Is it big enough to meet the legal requirement of 50-inch antler width? If the antlers are less than 50 inches, are there at least three brow tines on one side? Or is this bull small enough to fall in the other legal category?
Is one of its antlers a fork, or is there a bump on that fork that makes the moose, technically, a three pointer? Three pointers are illegal. So are moose with antlers from three-point up to 49.99 inches, unless they sport three brow tines on one of their antlers.
What are brow tines? The forward-facing points that come off the beams of a moose's antlers. In most of the state now, hunters can only shoot bulls that have antlers with three brown tines or antlers over 50 inches, or bulls with fork horns or smaller. If this over-under business sounds a bit like gambling, it is, at least to the degree the odds are stacked against the players.
''When you do find a needle in the haystack,'' Engel said, ''you don't even know what kind of needle it is.''
A retired state fisheries biologist who now serves on the state Board of Fisheries, Engel and a hunting buddy spent 45 minutes last fall watching a small moose before concluding it was illegal. The moose, Engel said, looked to be a fork-horn, but upon closer examination there was a ''bump'' on one of the forks that made the two points three.
''It's so frustrating,'' Engel said. ''I haven't given up yet, but it's getting close. It's not like it was in the good old days. We just kind of suck it up and keep going, though. But not with the enthusiasm I once had.''
Back in the good old days, Engel and hunting companion Dave Watsjold shot a bull every year. Their success rate now is getting closer to a bull every two years.
''It's tough,'' Engel said. ''We didn't get a moose last year.''
But at least they saw moose. A lot of Southcentral Alaska moose hunters couldn't even say that -- not counting the moose they probably saw running around Anchorage on their way to and from hunting areas.
Harsh winters coupled with heavy predation by bears and wolves have shrunk many moose populations by a third to a half or more.
Regionally, the Kenai Peninsula has been the least affected, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Ted Spraker of Soldotna still estimates the 1998 population of 8,000 moose is down to 6,500 -- and that after a good winter for moose survival.
North of Anchorage, biologists Herman Griese of Palmer and Bob Tobey of Glennallen are looking at a lot of habitat with moose densities thinner than one per square mile. Some places have only one moose per two or three square miles.
A hunter can spend a lot of time looking for moose without ever seeing one when densities are so low.
''I'm not looking for a good season,'' said Tobey. ''I would at least be putting the suggestion in people's mind that there may be greener pastures than the Copper Basin somewhere.''
He has two reasons for saying that:
The legal standard for bull moose in Game Management Unit 13 was raised to 50-inch antlers or four brow tines. That was done by the Board of Game to lower the kill of mature bulls, given low bull-to-cow ratios in the area. ''With the three bow-tines (requirement), we were getting some 21/2-year olds and a lot of 3-year olds,'' Tobey said. The new requirement will make almost all those moose illegal to shoot.
''Last year's calf crop was pretty poor, so the number of spike forks will be small. So you've got to get your moose on the high end.''
The short version of all this is that there are very few legal small bulls and not very many legal big bulls. Moose hunters in Unit 13 appear destined to do a lot more hunting than killing.
But it could be worse.
Griese noted that harsh winters and predation have pushed populations so low in the upper Yentna River drainage and the north side of Cook Inlet that the area has been closed to all but about 400 holders of special subsistence permits.
''That's all of (Game Management) Unit 16B but Kalgin Island,'' Griese said.
A lot of areas popular with Lake Hood based hunters -- Redoubt and Trading bays, the Chakachatna and Beluga lakes drainages, the slopes of Mount Susitna, the Skwentna and Yentna rivers drainages, Shell Lake and Rainy Pass -- fall in the closed area.
Air taxis that normally fly moose hunters from Anchorage into this area are still scrambling to figure out exactly where to take people. Unit 16A, north and east of the Yentna and Kahiltna rivers into the Alaska Range remains open to hunting of spike-fork and 50-inch bulls.
Where hunters used to find good hunting in the Petersville Hills, moose numbers are down because of the loss of calves to bears and wolves. There aren't many big moose, Griese said, and the calf to cow ratio last year for most of the unit was below one calf per four cows.
With reproductive rates so low, there won't be many of those spike-fork yearling bulls for hunters this year.
The area north of Willow Creek and east of the Susitna River has seen dismal reproduction. A spike-fork bull, Griese said, could be almost impossible to find, but there are a few big bulls ''if you can figure out a way to get in there.''
The area contains only a few lakes big enough to land an airplane. All-terrain-vehicle access is limited. The rivers -- the Talkeetna, Sheep and Kashwitna -- are white water.
And with a big moose, a hunter could be looking at moving 400 to 800 pounds of meat and bone. Questions of weight and distance should become paramount before one even thinks of shooting a 50-inch or larger moose. Let's see, four two-mile trips with 100 pounds loads equals 8 miles of misery, plus 8 miles of hiking; while 8 two-mile trips with 50 pound loads adds up to 16 miles of hard work and 16 miles of hiking.
Nobody even wants to think about the moose that requires a five-mile pack.
Consider this, and some words from state moose biologists may start to sound good.
''There's lots of moose around towns,'' Spraker said. ''The big concentrations of moose are going to be in our backyards,'' Griese said.
The highest moose densities on the Kenai at the moment are around Homer, Spraker said. The highest moose densities anywhere north of Anchorage are around Palmer and Wasilla.
The reasons are pretty simple. Bears and wolves don't get along well with people; moose that reside on the edge of civilization can largely escape natural predation.
All they have to survive is human predation, which is short, controlled, relatively inefficient and, under today's moose hunting rules, exempts a fair segment of the moose population.
Wolves, for instance, hunt year round, and kill any animal that looks vulnerable. Humans hunt for a month or so and can legally kill only big bull moose and little bull moose, though Engel and others worry that the difficulties of identifying legal animals are causing problems.
''We keep running into illegal kills,'' he said. Some hunters, it seems, don't understand the first rule of spike-fork, 50-inch moose hunting -- when in doubt, don't shoot. Judging by cases involving some of those who've turned themselves in for shooting illegal moose, then argued they shouldn't be prosecuted because they turned themselves in, there even seem to be some hunters who think it's OK to shoot first and measure later.
Hunters who shoot illegal bulls are subject to penalties of up to a year in jail with a $5,000 fine, but punishments tend to vary greatly depending on the degree of the violation. Hunters who find they've killed a 49-inch moose instead of a 50-inch moose and turn themselves in will probably be forced to forfeit the meat but probably won't even get a ticket.
On the other hand, hunters who shoot 30-inch moose and then turn themselves in with a claim of ignorance are destined for an appearance in court. But most Southcentral moose hunters won't have to worry about legalities.
Most of them won't see a moose.
Engel confessed that it's even getting hard for him to find moose these days, and he has spent years learning the haunts and habits of the animals in a few drainages of the western Talkeetna Mountains.
''We're still seeing some moose,'' Engel said, ''but we're seeing very few cows with calves. Every time we see them now, it's something we talk about. It's almost like it used to be with seeing bulls.''
That is a bad sign for the present, an even worse sign for the future.
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