Wasilla -- State game biologists got their first chance in several years to count moose in some key areas of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and the results were not good.
Moose numbers were down across a wide swath of the Susitna Valley from Skwentna north to Trapper Creek and west to the Talkeetna Mountains. In some instances, moose populations have dropped by more than half in less than five years.
Around Skwentna, once a hot hunting ground, biologists found about 1,700 moose, down from 3,300 tallied just six years ago, and far below the state's population objective for the area.
The low numbers are disappointing, but not surprising, said Tony Kavalok, the Mat-Su area wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.
Hunters and trappers have been saying for years that moose numbers were down.
"We have old pilots who say they used to see a lot of moose. Now they say they see no moose," Kavalok said.
Moose are in no danger of disappearing from the Valley. But their relative scarcity in some areas concerns hunters and subsistence users who say getting moose has become much tougher in recent years.
The counts, completed in late November and December, only covered ground on the west side of the Valley. But they are the first such surveys for those areas in more than five years.
They will also likely play a role in debates about predator control in Mat-Su and efforts to expand that program.
Predator control in Alaska and its merits have been touchy subjects nationally and statewide. The Mat-Su is one of handful of spots where lethal predator control has been sanctioned by the state Board of Game.
Last winter, the state authorized individuals to kill wolves north and south of Skwentna in an effort to boost moose populations. Ninety-one wolves were killed out of a population estimated as high as 200, Kavalok said. Another four have been shot this year, he said. Those numbers do not include wolves killed by hunters not participating in the predator control program, he said.
It's too soon to know if the work is boosting moose numbers, Kavalok said. The earliest biologists might see an impact would be this fall, he said.
Kavalok said he expects the Game Board may be asked to consider expanding the wolf kill program to other areas of the Valley and possibly allowing individuals to carry out a similar program for bears around the Skwentna area.
For the counts this winter, biologists flew over and tallied moose in three key areas known as game management units that covered ground around Skwentna as well as both sides of the Parks Highway from north of Willow to Talkeetna.
The specific game management units are 16A, 14B and the middle section of 16B. In all three, biologists found far fewer moose than in other recent surveys. They didn't count every moose, but made estimates based on those they did spot, Kavalok said.
The reasons for the declining populations likely vary from area to area, Kavalok said. "We're short on conclusions, long on guesses," he said.
In the Upper Susitna Valley, which includes units 16A and 14B, Kavalok said he suspects heavy snows may have taken a toll in recent years. An aging forest may also have contributed as moose struggle to find the young sprouts and trees they like to browse on, he said.
Biologists counted just over 3,000 moose in the two areas this winter, just over 1,000 fewer than reported six years ago.
To the south, in the area around Skwentna, Kavalok said he suspects predators might be a bigger factor.
In that area, moose numbers are down to about 1,700 from more than 3,300 six years ago. Cow to calf ratios also were low, which may indicate calves are not making it through the summer, he said.
Wolves and bears appear to thriving in the area judging by anecdotal evidence, he said.
Last summer, a state biologist tracking radio-collared moose in the area reported that for every moose he found he often sighted a bear nearby.
On the upside, Kavalok said it appears the decline in the moose populations may be tapering off. But, he said, the question he can't answer is: "Have we reached the bottom?"
Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-6714.