When hunters go afield on the Kenai Peninsula this fall, what can they expect to find?
For one thing, more moose, says Gino Del Frate, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"We expect the moose harvest to be better than in the last two years," Del Frate said.
In the winters of 1998-99 and 1999-2000, severe conditions killed a large number of calves, he said. While peninsula moose harvests in "normal" years have been averaging more than 600 animals, last year's harvest was only about one-half of that.
More calves survived last winter (2000-2001) because snow didn't start accumulating until late, Del Frate said. This year's harvest is expected to exceed 600 animals. Spike-forks -- yearlings -- will likely comprise 60 to 70 percent of the harvest, which is normal, he said.
"We don't think the harvest is going to be anywhere near record harvests we've had in the past, but we expect a good, average harvest," Del Frate said.
Hunters who don't lack for money can fly into hard-to-reach areas of the state, he said. Hunters interested in other areas should talk to someone with the Division of Wildlife Conservation in those areas before making plans. Telephone numbers for area offices are listed inside the front cover of the hunting regulation pamphlet.
Last winter was kind to moose, but cruel to Dall sheep and mountain goats, Del Frate said.
"We ended up with quite a bit of snow in the higher elevations," he said. "So when you look at sheep and goats, we're expecting our goat numbers, and possibly sheep, to be down in areas that got a lot of deep snow. There's still deep snow in some places."
Goat populations across the Kenai Peninsula peaked in about 1992, and numbers have been down for about 9 years. Since 1992, three or four winters significantly impacted goat populations.
"Last winter was a good example. We had a warm, rainy winter down here. But every rain storm was a foot of snow up there," Del Frate said.
Upper-elevation snow surveys determined that the normal snowpack had been exceeded by up to 200 percent. The deep snow meant hard-going for sheep and goats, he said.
"Our sheep tend to try to find wind-blown ridges, a lot like our Kenai Mountain caribou do. But our goats tend to try to weather it out. They'll either stay up high, on wind-blown areas, or they'll go down into the trees. If the snow is 6 feet deep in the trees, there's not a whole lot of food. We tend to see higher goat mortality after winters like that."
The Port Graham area, on the tip of the southern peninsula, is the only part on the peninsula that was virtually snow-free all winter. That area, open only to Tier II subsistence hunters, had "tremendous" kid production and good overall survival, Del Frate said.
Sheep hunting hasn't been good in recent years because of harsh winters in the mid-1990s.
"Most of our adult rams should be 7 or 8 years of age," Del Frate said. "We had very little lamb production in the mid-'90s, so we have no animals of that year-class."
With few harvestable rams available during the last couple of years, the harvest was very low. Del Frate said he thinks this year's sheep population might show some signs of recovery.
"There should be a few more rams out there," Del Frate said. "This year's sheep harvest should be a little better than the last two years harvests, which have been dismal."
One big change in this year's hunting regulations is caribou. Because the Killey River herd has outgrown its available habitat, the Board of Game has allowed hunters to take three cow caribou by registration permit. That season started Aug. 10 and runs through Sept. 20, but most hunters shouldn't get excited.
"So far, the number of permits issued has been low, mostly because we've made an effort to let people know that this is not an easy hunt," Del Frate said.
With a dressed out cow caribou weighing upward of 100 pounds, horses are an absolute necessity for this hunt, which occurs where no ATVs are allowed. If you go in from Funny River Road, you're looking at 20 to 25 miles up the Funny River Horse Trail to get horses in. If you go in from Tustumena Lake, you're looking at a 15- to 25-mile boat trip, depending on which trail you're taking, followed by a 5- to 8-mile hike. And that's just to get to caribou habitat. You may have to go another 5 miles to find caribou.
"If hunters want to hunt the Killey River herd, they have to stop by the Fish and Game office to get a permit," Del Frate said, adding that hunters should expect to receive a spiel about the difficulty of hunting the area.
Actually, the best way for peninsula hunters to get a caribou isn't on the peninsula, but across Cook Inlet to hunt the Mulchatna herd, he said.
"That herd has made some pretty erratic movements, the last three of four years, and it's been pretty hard for even the local air taxis to keep up with where the animals are and where they are going," he said. "But for a local caribou hunter, that's still probably the best opportunity."
It may come as a surprise to some hunters that, after moose, black bears are the peninsula's second most popular big-game animal.
"We've been looking at pretty high harvests of black bears in the last couple of years," Del Frate said. "We harvest about 300 bears or more a year," he said.
The peak of the black bear harvest in the fall is usually near the end of moose season, just before bears get ready to go into their dens. They're usually on hillsides, eating berries. At that time, their meat and hides are in good condition.
"That's when most hunters tend to target them," Del Frate said. "It's a good opportunity to get out and enjoy the woods one more time before the snow flies. Usually the harvest is pretty much over with by the tenth of October."
Del Frate said the department expects to open the scheduled brown bear season the last two weeks of October.
"The only threat to that season is if too many brown bears are killed in defense of life or property before we get to that point," he said.
If the harvestable surplus of brown bears is "used up" by DLPs, illegal takings or road kills, the season will be canceled. The population is managed for an average harvest of about 14 per year. No more of 6 of these can be females.
"It's usually the female component that we're watching the closest," Del Frate said. "So far, three females have been killed out of a total of six brown bears."
Small-game hunters will have their work cut out for them this season, Del Frate said.
"We don't think there's going to be very good hunting for grouse or hares," he said.
Spruce grouse numbers have been in decline for the past two or three years. Biologists aren't certain whether the drop in numbers is a natural cycle or one of the unexpected effects of spruce bark beetles, or a combination of both, Del Frate said.
"We haven't had good grouse production yet on our ruffed grouse transplant. We're hoping that this year, when we had one of the driest, warmest Junes on record, that most of the birds that produced clutches should have had good survival in terms of the weather."
Predation and other factors also can affect the number of chicks that survive until the fall hunting season, he said. Though it's legal to shoot ruffed grouse, the department is still encouraging hunters to pass them up until they increase their numbers on the peninsula.
Snowshoe hares remain in decline, Del Frate said.
"This winter, a hunter could take beagles out and find some pockets of hares to hunt, but hare numbers are definitely down from the peak," he said. "I expect the decline to continue this winter."
If nothing else, hunters are bound to come across the occasional law enforcement officer, Del Frate said.
"Spike-fork/50-inch regulations have been in effect for 15 years, so hunters should be aware of them and Fish and Wildlife Protection troopers will be enforcing them," he said.
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