ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Moose numbers are down in the Kenai Peninsula and will probably stay that way for years, according to state wildlife biologists.
Biologist Ted Spraker said a recent aerial count over a rich moose habitat north of Sterling showed 30 percent fewer bulls than there were three years ago. The moose population in that area is down from a high of 3,500 moose in the 1980s to an estimated 2,000 today.
Spraker said many calves were killed by a couple of severe winters in recent years. But a bigger factor is that hardwood trees that moose eat are being taken over by spruce as the forest in the Swanson River and Mystery Creek area ages.
Human-caused forest fires in 1947 and 1969 scorched the landscape near Sterling and Kenai, triggering hardwoods to grow in abundance. It would take human intervention, such as large-scale prescribed burns or major logging, to regenerate the sort of habitat created by such fires, Spraker said.
The increasing number of homes and cabins dotting the countryside, however, makes it more likely that naturally occurring wildfires will be fought and put out, said Rick Ernst, a biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The same development makes prescribed burning harder to plan and conduct.
Predator control might help in the short term, Spraker said, but the moose population can't grow without enough trees to eat.
''I think people on the Kenai Peninsula are just going to have to resolve to themselves that our moose population is not going to recover,'' Spraker said
That means hunters might have a tougher time finding prey. And wolves and bears also might find fewer pickings.
Spraker said a smaller population also means fewer moose for drivers to strike. The number of moose-related auto accidents has dropped, from a high of 366 in 1989-90 to 171 last winter, Spraker said. One reason there were fewer collisions last winter is there was not much snow, fewer moose were forced to the lowlands to find food.
Not all of the Kenai Peninsula's moose range is in decline. Nearer to Homer, where winters are milder, moose numbers appear to be increasing.
There are probably 6,500 moose living on the peninsula, down from an estimated 8,500, Spraker said.
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