Bill Sherwonit / Commentary / Anchorage Daily News / September 30, 2005
Since the late 1980s, I have made annual fall trips into the western foothills of Chugach State Park to watch and sometimes photograph moose. As the autumn rut gets under way, moose congregate in spruce forests and subalpine alder and willow thickets along what's known as the Middle Fork Loop Trail above Anchorage's Hillside. They begin gathering here in large numbers in late August or early September and remain through October or even into November.
Over the years I've watch bull moose joust, lick their wounds, smack gigantic antlers against bushes and trees, and herd or try to herd cows in satisfying their seasonal lust.
This year I've counted as many as 21 moose within a mile's radius, including 14 from one spot. My personal record is 24 moose at one time, and I wouldn't be surprised if more serious moose observers and photographers have seen more.
Moose numbers in this area haven't seemed to change much in the 15 or 20 years I've been watching. Some years I see more, others less, depending on my own (and the moose's) patterns of activity. What has changed, however, is the number of people pursuing the moose, mostly professional and serious amateur photographers, but also folks simply interested in wildlife. Years ago, I would sometimes walk among the moose, no other people in sight. Now I sometimes count nearly as many people as moose, and occasionally more.
The braver -- or more foolish -- of the photographers stalk to within 30, 20, or even 15 feet of the moose. I've watched some stalk even closer. Usually the moose hardly seem to notice, perhaps because they have more pressing matters on their minds.
In short, the moose have grown highly tolerant of people.
Now the Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to allow hunters a shot at these human-habituated moose. Beginning Oct. 20, hunters armed with muzzle loaders or 12-gauge shotguns with slugs will be able to gun down post-rut moose, after the animals have spent many weeks sharing the park with photographers and wildlife watchers. According to Rick Sinnott, only four permits will be issued. That's four too many.
This hunt is an awful idea and makes no sense at all. Four dead moose in the Chugach foothills will do nothing to alleviate Anchorage's moose-human conflicts, including moose-vehicle collisions. If that's the goal, why not increase the moose harvest on one of the military bases, or hold a hunt in one of the city parks, where conflicts are real? Of course that would never fly. The Chugach foothills are an easier "solution": out of sight, out of mind.
If hunting opportunity is the rationalization, why not boost the number of permits in an area already open to moose hunting? Why open this area, which in October and November remains a place where park visitors can still see moose? Conflicts between hunters and other recreational visitors are bound to occur. I certainly don't want to come across a hunter stalking, shooting or gutting a moose, or hauling out its remains. While moose hunters will be required to haul gut piles, hide and other parts at least 100 yards from any trail, many people go off-trail in that area. And in October, bears are still roaming the Chugach foothills. Why set up a possible problem with bears on gut piles?
Worst of all, to me, is the fact that this will allow hunters to kill human-habituated moose. Hunters will be able to approach within 15 or 20 feet, perhaps even closer, and then blast away. Where's the sport in that? The fair chase? The ethics?
I'm disappointed that Fish and Game continues to push for such a hunt (as it has done many times over the past 10 to 15 years). But I'm especially discouraged and angered that the Chugach State Park staff is going to allow this slaughter.
A former member of Chugach State Park's Citizens Advisory Board, nature writer Bill Sherwonit regularly writes about wildlife in and around Anchorage
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