Weird weather provides relief from winter wildlife woes

Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2000

It's bad for skiers, snowmachiners and anyone behind the wheel of a car. But the season's slushfest is a boon to moose and many other wild critters.

"In general, a low snow winter, especially with high temperatures like this, is good for moose," said Kris Hundertmark, wildlife research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

"The moose population could certainly use a break. They've had a couple tough winters in a row."

Winter's severity is the main factor limiting the Kenai Peninsula moose population. In the worst years, as many as 20 percent die, according to the Soldotna office of Fish and Game.

They starve as deep snows cut off their food supplies, or they blunder into traffic trying to travel on the cleared corridors. Over the past decade, nearly 300 peninsula moose per year have been killed in highway collisions.

Last year, 112 moose had been hit by this time. This year, the tally so far is 75, said Larry Lewis, a Fish and Game wildlife technician who tracks conflicts between people and wildlife.

"The difference is the fact the animals are not congregating around the roadways," he said.

But he was reluctant to attribute the entire change to the weather. Central peninsula moose numbers are declining, and drivers are more cautious, Lewis added.

Still, Hundertmark said weather is an important factor in winter moose morality.

"The thing that makes moose move is snow depth," he said. "We've found in our studies that if they experience a mild winter they do not move."

Scant snow and mild temperatures would especially help the calves born last spring.

"Adult moose are fairly temperature proof. Calves are a different story," he said.

At about zero degrees Fahrenheit, the juveniles seem to pass a metabolic threshold and then use a lot of energy to keep warm. Cold and snowy winters take a heavy toll on the young of the year, Hundertmark said.

But this weather has one big negative for moose. They can fall on ice, go spread-eagled and break pelvic bones.

"That is actually a fairly common thing when we have ice like this," he said.

Hundertmark has spent a lot of time observing moose up close at the Moose Research Center at Swanson River. In icy conditions, he has seen them go up on tiptoes and carefully dig in the points of their hooves to get traction.

"Moose get real nervous on ice," he said.

Caribou may benefit from the snowless ground, too. In the winter they must root to reach low plants, so deep snow and crust put them at a disadvantage, he said.

But for smaller plant eaters, the lack of snow presents challenges.

The edible critters that turn white in winter, ptarmigan and snowshoe hares, are vulnerable on the brown and gray terrain. The hares already were declining from their peak about two years ago as part of a natural, cyclical fluctuation, Hundertmark said.

Rodents may be at risk because they tunnel beneath snow to keep warm and hidden. Predators like owls, hawks and coyotes may have an easier time picking them off, he said.

Lewis agreed that the weather may be kind to predators. The exception, he said, is wolves, which rely on pulling down weak moose late in winter.

David Wartinbee, biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, said the winter birds, too, are benefiting from the prolonged autumn conditions.

They can find more food than normal because of the lack of snow. At the same time, they need less food because of the mild temperatures.

When winters grow frigid, birds are hard pressed to get enough calories to keep their small bodies warm.

"If we ate 'like a bird' we would be big as dirigibles," he said.

But this year the ground is littered with exposed plant seeds. Other plants and carrion such as spawned-out salmon are still accessible.

"The birds seem to be doing well," he said.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual for the peninsula's important aquatic life. With the open streams and light passing through the bare ice to stimulate algae, creatures such as juvenile salmon, lake fish and the water bugs they feed upon have postponed their moves deeper into the water or sediments, he speculated.

"I think it's kind of a wash for them," he said.

If the winter continues this way, the unseasonable weather could have repercussions in the spring, he noted.

Summer's salmon are still exposed, and scavengers are picking them over. Fewer are preserved under snow, which may mean fewer "leftovers" for spring foragers.

"There may be fewer fish to be found in the springtime when bears come out. That is pure speculation," Wartinbee said.

This quirky warmth may be affecting other wildlife few people notice, he added.

"I've seen a lot of slime molds," he said.

The biologists added that if the weather turns cold without snow cover, the situation could change dramatically.

Deprived of snow insulation, small creatures like rodents could perish in droves. The repercussions would work up the food chain, affecting predators. Conversely, just a few big snows at any time could put the moose and caribou back into the stressful situation of floundering through belly-deep drifts and colliding with cars, Hundertmark said.

But the longer the cold and snow are kept at bay, the more reserves of strength and food the wild animals will have to carry themselves through the long winter still ahead.

"This kind of weather is good for just about everything except people," Lewis said.

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