Kenai Peninsula facility provides wealth of scientific information

Moose Research Center a world leader

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

KENAI PENINSULA On a crisp morning this fall, biologist Stacy Jenkins tucked two oversized baby bottles under her arms and rallied her reinforcements. Her three babies were just a few months old, but they were pushy, hungry and well over 100 pounds each.

Tom Lohuis carried a third bottle of warm milk, and John Crouse swung open the gate at the Kenai Moose Research Center. The three moose, bleating at the sight of breakfast, rushed headlong for the scientists.

Moose are popular with photographers and wildlife watchers, and Alaska's official land mammal is hunted by more people than any other animal in the state. Between 6,000 and 8,000 moose are harvested each year, providing more than three million pounds of meat.

Knowing what makes a moose healthy, and what it takes to maintain healthy moose populations, is important to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and to wildlife managers across the North. But a full-grown, three-quarter-ton moose can be a dangerous animal to study. A moose kick can kill a wolf, and more than one person has been on the receiving end of such deadly blows.

It's tough for a biologist to dog the heels of a foraging wild moose to watch exactly how it eats, or to closely monitor the pregnancy of a cow moose. But tame moose don't object to human company. By bottle-raising moose and conditioning them to human contact, biologists at the Kenai Moose Research Center have cultivated cooperative subjects.

''This facility has so much to offer,'' said Jenkins, who has worked at the center for five years. ''There are things you can do here that you can't do in the wild, and plenty of things you can test out and apply to the wild.''

The facility, built in the late 1960s, is tucked into the rolling hill and lake country of the northwestern Kenai Peninsula. The center is home to 19 moose and 23 caribou. Sixteen miles of tall fencing encloses four tracts, each a square-mile, with a landscape of trees, meadows and small lakes. In a farm-like setting, the lab and research facilities, bunkhouse and caretaker's cabin are surrounded by rolls of fencing, building materials and ranching paraphernalia.

Over the years, moose researchers from Norway, Sweden, Russia, Canada and the Lower 48 have worked on projects at the center. Many of the studies at the center are long-term, because scientists are able to work with the same animals for years, an opportunity rarely available in the wild.

''More than 250 scientific papers based on research at the center have been published,'' said Fish and Game Deputy Commis-sioner Wayne Regelin, who worked at the center in the 1970s and early '80s. ''A lot of pioneering work has been done at the center how to capture moose using drugs, studies on moose-habitat relationships, various ways to evaluate moose physical condition. It's a leader in moose research.''

This summer Tom Lohuis, (pronounced low-hice) a 35-year-old physiologist from Wyoming, took over as director of the facility. After four years of crawling into black-bear dens to learn about bear physiology, he's ready to focus on moose. Crouse, also originally from Wyoming, has been with the center for almost seven years. Together with Jenkins, they juggle duties that range from designing experiments to mending fences.

''This is a dream job for me,'' Lohuis said. ''This is a prestigious facility in the biology world. The emphasis here (in Alaska) on doing quality research, and using that to make management decisions, is unparalleled in the country. I haven't seen it in other states like this.''

At the center, what goes in and comes out of a moose can be closely monitored. If a research project requires it, the moose can even be loaded in a trailer and transported. Researchers studying specific environments or vegetation types can see how moose respond when unleashed on a new site.

Moose eat hearty in the flush days of summer, and depend on their stores of fat and protein to get them through Alaska's lean winters. Because nutrition is such an important part of moose biology, much of the work at the center looks at metabolism and diet.

Just as medical doctors use ultrasound to look at a patient's internal organs, ultrasound technology allows Crouse to measure the layer of fat on a moose to gauge the condition of the animal.

''An ultrasound can be a real good index of body condition,'' he said. ''Going into winter, if a moose hits 17 percent body fat, that's pretty good shape. Some are at 28 percent; some are as low as 3 percent that's a hurting unit, about ready to keel over. Anyone over 25 percent is a fat animal in good shape for the winter.''

How nutrition is related to reproduction is an important area of moose research. Biologists know that the availability of nitrogen can be the limiting factor in reproduction.

Nitrogen is an essential part of an animal's diet, and moose get it from fresh, budding leaves. Their diet is low in nitrogen most of the year, so the two months when young leaves are available are critical.

Nitrogen deficiency and resulting protein deficiency - can cause failure to conceive, failure to carry a baby to term and low birth weights.

''Moose can be really productive twinning rates can be 90 percent, and they will produce triplets. You'll see yearlings being bred,'' said Jenkins. ''Or twinning rates drop to 20 percent, and moose will skip years calving, or wait until they are three or four years old to have their first calf.''

Jenkins is involved in several nutrition studies. One looks at the comparative nutritional values of cottonwood, birch and willow leaves. Another examines how moose respond to excellent and poor habitat, and how hard moose must work to find food in marginal habitat.

''You can go in after the fact and measure bite size and get ideas about what part of the plant they're exploiting,'' she said. ''That's why we've put so much effort over the past few years to raise these calves, to have a moose that's tractable and will stand next to you like a dog, but will forage like a (wild) moose.

''If you don't have bottle-raised animals, you really can't do these kinds of studies. They just growl at you.''

Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments, suggestions or more information, he can be reached at riley_woodford@

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