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Dispute Over Antlerless Hunt in Flats Continues in Alaska
Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / August 13, 2005

When state wildlife biologist Don Young talks about harvesting hundreds of cow moose on the Tanana Flats, he refers to it as "the good old days," a time when there were more than enough moose to go around for hunters who wanted them.

But when Mike Pearson talks about shooting cow moose, he does so with a reluctance that is common among hunters in Alaska.

"This cow deal is kind of scary," Pearson said.

With the Tanana Flats moose herd still showing signs of what biologists call "nutritional stress," the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is aiming to kill 800 cow and calf moose in Game Management Unit 20A south of Fairbanks this fall to thin the herd.

The hunt is split into seven zones, each with a different harvest quota. The quotas range from 10 in Zone 7, a walk-in-only area around McKinley Village, to 300 in Zone 2, the central Tanana Flats across the Tanana River south of Fairbanks.

It's the second year in a row the state has opened up the Flats to a large cow harvest to slow growth of the herd. Hunters last year killed a reported 602 antlerless moose--most of them adult cows--but that harvest barely put a dent in the moose population, Young said. Biologists counted an estimated 16,000 moose on the Tanana Flats this summer.

"We want that population to come down to 10,000 or 12,000," he said.

State wildlife biologists contend the Tanana Flats herd is too big for its range and productivity is declining as a result, even though the number of moose continues to grow. Twinning rates have dropped, calves are getting smaller, some cows aren't reproducing until they are 4 or 5 years old and others only produce calves every other year.

Those are all indicators of a moose population teetering on the edge, Young said. The state wants to prevent a massive die-off of moose on the Tanana Flats in the event of a severe winter. State game managers would rather see those moose go into freezers than the stomachs of wolves and ravens.

"We want to utilize those moose," Young said. "We don't want to stockpile them and have a hard winter come along and wipe them out."

Neither does Pearson.

"I don't want to see us get a big snow and have a bunch of moose starve," he acknowledged.

But at the same time, he said, "I'm not going to shoot a cow."

Philosophical debate

While it may make biological sense to remove cows instead of bulls to reduce the population--one bull breeds several cows and there are about three times the number of cows as bulls--the idea of shooting hundreds of cows doesn't sit well with some hunters.

"It's not real popular down here," said Pearson, who lives in Anderson and is chairman of the Middle Nenana Fish and Game Advisory Committee, one of more than 80 such groups around the state that make recommendations to state game managers. "There's a lot of people who don't like it."

Pearson's committee supported the expanded cow hunt, although opinions were mixed. Three of the four local advisory committees involved supported the hunt. Fish and Game must have the support of a majority of local advisory groups before implementing any cow hunt, according to state statute.

Some members of Pearson's committee were persuaded by Young's claim that many areas on the Flats are overbrowsed because there are too many moose.

Others on the committee, including Pearson, went along with the hunt only after Fish and Game agreed to delay the start of the cow hunt in the most accessible areas along the Parks Highway until Oct. 5 instead of opening it on Sept. 1 during the regular moose season. That should cut down on what Pearson said were crowded and unsafe conditions last year.

The state issued more than 5,400 permits for the cow hunt in 2004, though only about 2,000 of those permit holders reported hunting.

"There were so many people in the woods at one time, people were scared somebody was going to get shot," said Pearson, who suggested weeklong hunts for youth hunters or archers instead of opening the area to a free-for-all cow hunt.

Unintentional consequences

The only committee to oppose the cow hunt was the Delta Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

"We did not feel that shooting cows and calves was necessarily beneficial to the herd," chairman Darrell Darland said.

The Delta committee didn't buy Young's claim that the area was overbrowsed. The state should conduct the controlled burn that has been on the books for the Tanana Flats for the past eight years instead of opening a cow hunt if there is a lack of food for moose, Darland said.

"If there's really a problem with browse, let's make some browse," he said.

Shooting cows and calves also "plays right into the hands of the antis," he said, referring to anti-hunting groups.

"We demand predator control because there are not enough moose and here we are shooting cows," Darland said.

While it opposes shooting calves, the Minto Fish and Game Advisory Committee supports a cow hunt, said committee member Knowland Silas of Minto, a small Native village 100 miles north of Fairbanks.

"There's lots of cows here," Silas said.

While Pearson agrees that some areas are overbrowsed, or "chomped down to firewood" as he put it, he is still reluctant to endorse a cow hunt of this magnitude, in part because of what happened more than 30 years ago.

"In the early '70s, we had that November hunt and killed a bunch of cows and then we had some bad winters and there was nothing for a long, long time," Pearson said, recalling a population collapse from 20,000 to 2,000 in just a few years.

There are plenty of hunters in his neck of the woods who remember those days and don't want to see them repeated.

"A lot of the guys down here are in their 50s, 60s and 70s," he said. "They're worried if we wipe out the moose we'll never see another crop of moose in their lifetime."

Target of 1,300

Proponents of the antlerless hunt argue that biology is better today than it was 30 years ago and biologists are better able to track the herd using technology such as radio collars, which allow researchers to follow specific animals to gauge the health of the herd.

The cow hunt is the best way to satisfy local hunters' appetite for moose, especially since the state instituted antler restrictions in Unit 20A three years ago that dropped the bull harvest, said Mike Kramer, chairman of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee. In addition, a healthy moose population requires a certain percentage of bulls versus cows.

"We're convinced ... the overall population will become more healthy if some of the older, more unproductive cows are removed from the population," Kramer said. "People say, 'Oh my God, that's a lot of breeding stock that's going into freezers,' but barren cows aren't good for the population.

"They just run around and eat willows and take up space."

The cow hunt has provided "a wonderful opportunity for hunters to fill the freezer with a relatively inexpensive, accessible hunt," he said.

If all goes as planned this fall and hunters reach the 800-moose quota in the antlerless hunt and take the 500 bulls Young expects they will, it would mean that almost 20 percent of the state's moose harvest will come from Unit 20A.

"We could take 1,300 moose out of there," Young said. "That's really exciting."

Or scary, depending who you talk to.

News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com .

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