Winter is a harsh time for Kenai Peninsula wildlife.
As snows pile up, the toll on moose is particularly obvious. They stagger into roadways to avoid wallowing through drifts. They congregate in lowlands and eat browse to the nubs. And, especially in a long, cold, snowy season, they drop of starvation on people's doorsteps.
Anyone with an ounce of sympathy is tempted to give them food.
Don't do that, wildlife experts warn.
"There are too many things that can go terribly wrong," said Kris Hundertmark, wildlife research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"It is definitely a public safety problem."
Desperate moose will eagerly eat vegetables, hay, dog food and garbage. They even will eat out of people's hands. But they cannot digest such foods, and the hunger and habituation to humans make them dangerous.
"The moose come to expect a reward. It's all fun until someone gets hurt," Hundertmark said.
"They can get nasty. They are awfully big animals, and when they get angry they let you know."
Fed moose lose their fear of humans and come to associate
people with food. Seeking more food, they get aggressive.
"Once a moose has been fed, it creates a problem not just for that person, but for all the neighbors," said Larry Lewis, a Fish and Game wildlife technician who responds to public moose complaints.
Children are most vulnerable, he warned.
"A kid is the same as a dog to a moose. They come after them," he said.
Several years ago a moose on the central peninsula attacked a small boy and broke his arm, he said. In Anchorage, moose have trampled adults to death.
Meanwhile, moose get little benefit from food they get around people. They may like lettuce and hay, but it offers them no nutrition.
"Moose are designed to eat woody browse. They don't do well on hay," Hundertmark said.
Garbage can be worse than no food at all.
Lewis said he has autopsied dead animals whose stomachs were full of plastic bags.
"They will start eating anything and everything," he said.
Lewis already has gotten moose complaints this month. Later in the season, he gets as many as 20 calls a day, depending on the severity of the winter, about moose that are starving, injured, tangled up or threatening people. Sometimes he has to shoot several in a day, he said.
"If I go to a residence and I'm charged by a moose, I'm probably going to kill it," he said.
But there are ways people can avoid problems and help the moose.
Hundertmark said there is an appropriate way to feed moose.
People can cut down willow, birch or aspen branches that have grown too high for the animals to reach on their own. Packed snowmachine trails can help moose travel and reach the browse piles. Such piles should be kept well away from houses, roads and pathways people frequent, he said.
Ultimately, the solution is preserving prime moose habitat, he said.
"If we want more moose, we should have habitat, not engage in mass feeding," Hundertmark said.
Lewis emphasizes what he calls "education outreach."
When he responds to calls about nuisance moose, he takes time to discuss the situation and ways to improve it. He also gives seminars on living with wildlife and speaks about safety issues to area school children.
It is easier for people to learn to act responsibly around wildlife than to change moose behavior. The solution involves a tidy yard, storing dog food indoors, keeping garbage inaccessible and, especially, avoiding direct feeding, he said.
"What starts out as cutesy pie ends up with a lot of bad feelings and a dead moose," Lewis said.
"A fed moose is a dead moose."
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