With the moose population now estimated to outnumber the winter human population in Gustavus, several scientists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have gathered in the small community this weekend to learn more about the effects these mammals are having on the local ecosystem.
A special draw hunt of cow moose began Thursday on state land that is surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park land and waterways in this community, which is about 40 miles west of Juneau. About 2,000 applicants competed for the 90 permits issued for this unique hunt limited to about 24 square miles.
"There's a lot of stuff going on here that is different from other herds," Fish and Game biologist Neil Barten said.
In 2004 Fish and Game estimated the Gustavus moose population density to be one of the highest in the state, with 3.8 animals per square kilometer. Because the species is relatively new to the area, with moose first documented in Gustavus in the 1960s, Barten said scientists worry about the sustainability of the herd. The large mammals have a substantial effect on the ecosystem.
"The reason that we're killing moose is that we feel there are too many moose for the available habitat to be sustained for a long period of time," he said.
The biologists have been in close contact with hunters this weekend, who have been supplying Fish and Game with biological samples from their kills. Barten said the hunters have been highly cooperative with the study, supplying between 16 and 18 specimens on the first day of the hunt.
Hunters have certain obligations that go along with the permit if they bag a moose, including a hunting report and providing the lower jawbone for age testing on the teeth. Hunters are also encouraged to volunteer other parts of their trophy for scientific purposes, including the reproductive tract, a small lobe of the liver, a rumen sample, a pellet sample and kidneys.
"Everyone of those samples is very important to us because it gives us a data point and some more insight into this moose population," Barten said.
Scientists have found that the heavy moose foraging can have a domino-like effect on other parts of the ecosystem, including changing plant community composition and influencing soil nutrient cycling processes, which can lead to a reduction in numbers and diversity of other insects and animals.
Biologist Ryan Scott said when moose first populated the area they found pristine forage areas, which led to an explosion in the herd size. The moose have been eating so well, especially when browsing willows, that scientists fear the food may soon run low and affect the entire herd if they are not managed properly.
"At the rate they're foraging now, we don't want something drastic to happen, and by taking out some of the animals it will help out the habitat," Scott said.
The moose population has also been booming because of the lack of predators.
"Right now it seems the hunters are the major source of mortality for this herd," Barten said.
Fish and Game is using the samples and the research it is gathering to ensure the herd is managed properly, Scott said.
"There's a lot of generations to come so we want to make sure that people can still come out and enjoy the animals in the future," Scott said.
The hunt has grown substantially since it began four years ago. Ten permits were handed out the first year, 35 the second, 60 last year, and now 90 permits have been issued. The hunt will last until Dec. 10 or until 90 moose have been taken.
The permits have been broken down into three sections this season to ensure hunter safety on the relatively small hunting fields.
"We have a much better-managed hunt and it's not as chaotic hunt because we spread the hunt around three different spots," Barten said.
The beginning of the hunt has drawn many of the permit holders to Gustavus this weekend. Barten said he estimates two-thirds of the permit holders have been hunting this weekend.
"It does provide a lot of opportunity for people to get some good meat," he said.
Scott said being in Gustavus this week has been the ideal situation for a biologist living and working in the Last Frontier. He said it is exhilarating to get out in the field and work with the hunters. The first day of the hunt he was helping collect samples and took a moment to appreciate his surroundings when the moon poked out from behind the thinning clouds, he said. It's just another day working in Alaska.
"It is a neat area and what a neat opportunity, not only for me to get out here and do this, but what a neat opportunity for the hunters to get out here and hunt," Scott said.
Barten said he hopes the hunters will not shoot any bulls in the antlerless hunt, though it is possible because they have begun shedding their racks. Hunters should also be aware of radio-collared moose, some of which may have tainted meat not suitable for eating because of residual amounts of anesthetics.
Scott said some people might feel killing these moose cows is unethical, but he ensures that it is vital to the ecosystem.
"The stuff we are doing is 100 percent focused on maintaining a healthy moose herd here," he said.