When the state Department of Fish and Game set a quota of 800 moose for the antlerless moose hunt in Game Management Unit 20A south of Fairbanks this season, some hunters got the impression there must be moose everywhere.
Now that they're finding out that isn't necessarily the case, they're not happy campers.
As of Friday, hunters had killed a reported 286 cow and calf moose in the Unit 20A antlerless moose hunt, only about 30 percent of the 800 quota. The result has been more than a few disgruntled hunters.
"I heard that from people from Homer, Glennallen, Kenai, Mat-Su and Anchorage," said Mike Pearson, chairman of the Middle-Nenana Fish and Game Advisory Committee. "They said Fish and Game made it sound like there were moose all over the place and they couldn't find any. A lot of them said, 'We're never coming back here.'"
State wildlife biologist Don Young with Fish and Game in Fairbanks said there are still plenty of antlerless moose roaming Unit 20A, but that doesn't mean there's a moose behind every bush.
"From what I've heard, the rumor is people can drive down the trail and see a ton of moose," said Young. "Even with high moose densities, there's a lot of country out there to hide a moose, even at three or four moose per square mile."
Most of the 286 moose harvested so far were taken in Zone 2, the northcentral Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks across the Tanana River, which has a quota of 300 moose. The reported harvest was 219 moose as of Friday.
The reported harvests in Zone 4 and 5, the two hardest areas to reach, were 20 and 19, respectively. The quotas in those two hunts are 190 and 180, respectively.
The harvest is expected to shoot up next week when three more areas along the Parks Highway open to hunters, however.
Zones 1, 3 and 7, which extend from Nenana south to McKinley Park, will open on Wednesday. Given the easy access and low harvest quotas--105 total moose for the three hunts--state game managers don't expect any of the three hunts to be open long.
"I'm expecting a pretty good turnout based on the number of calls I've been getting," said Young. "Based on what happened last year and the reduced quotas, I would expect the season will be relatively short; maybe a week."
Last year, the harvest quotas in Zone 1 and 3 were 40 and 60 moose, respectively, and the season lasted only a week. Even then, hunters overshot the quota for both zones, taking 92 moose in Zone 1 and 98 in Zone 3.
The antlerless hunt, now in its second year, was established by the Department of Fish and Game two years ago to reduce the number of cow moose on the Tanana Flats and in the Alaska Range foothills. State wildlife biologists say there are too many moose in Unit 20A and the population is showing signs of stress, specifically lower reproduction rates and smaller calves.
Hunters harvested 602 antlerless moose last year--most of them cows--and the state set a quota of 800 antlerless moose for this year's hunt, which is divided into seven zones. The season is open until Dec. 10 or when hunters reach or approach a quota for a certain area, at which time the state closes it by emergency order. So far, only one of the four areas that opened on Sept. 1--Zone 6 near Delta Junction--has been closed.
The antlerless hunts have stirred up controversy among many hunters, some of whom view the hunts as an easy opportunity to fill the freezer and others who worry that killing too many cows will lead to a future decline in the moose population and less opportunity to hunt in the future.
According to surveys by state wildlife biologists, there are plenty of moose in Unit 20A to support the higher cow harvests the past two years and it will lead to a more productive herd in the future.
"The moose were there in our November surveys and we didn't have a high winter kill," said Young, who tracks dozens of cow moose by radio collar. "There's no reason to suspect those moose aren't out there now."
It's possible that moose aren't in the same places hunters found them last year, due to warmer weather or a change in distribution, and biologists will conduct surveys again in November to evaluate the population.
"We're going to look at the November numbers again and if anything is amiss we will take appropriate actions," Young said.
One area in which hunters claimed there weren't as many cows to be found this year was the Rex Trail south of Clear, a popular access point for hunters on off-road vehicles.
"One guy told me last year he counted 17 gut piles on the Rex Trail in one mile, said Pearson, who knew of only a few cows and calves taken by hunters on the Rex this season. "There wasn't much up and down that trail this year,".
Whether that's because hunters shot too many last year or it was a result of warm weather during the hunting season, Pearson couldn't say.
"I think out in the (Tanana) Flats it was pretty slow because it was pretty warm, but people in hills seemed to do OK," Pearson said.
The harvest in Zone 4, which consists of the Wood River Controlled Use Area, should increase when restrictions on motorized vehicles are lifted on Oct. 1. At that point, off-road vehicles will be allowed to access the area. Once there is enough snow, hunters will be able to use snowmachines to access the area, too, Young said.
As for the hunting areas that will open on Wednesday, Pearson said it will be interesting to see how many hunters show up and how many moose are taken.
The openings in the three most accessible areas were delayed this year after complaints of crowded conditions last year.
Zone 1 consists of the western Tanana Flats from the Tanana River on the north, the Rex Trail on the south, the Nenana River on the west and Tatlanika Creek on the east. The quota for that area is 30 moose.
Zone 3 is bordered by the Rex Trail on the north, Tatlanika Creek on the east, the Nenana River on the west and Yanert River on the south. The quota is 65 moose.
Zone 7 consists of the Yanert Controlled Use Area around McKinley Village, which is closed to hunting with motorized vehicles. The quota for that walk-in hunt is 10 moose.
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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