Wolf Song of Alaska News

Hunting, Vehicles Ruin Moose Habitat in Alaska

Compass: Points of view from the community

Rudy Wittshirk / Anchorage Daily News / June 7, 2006

More than moose are missing from Alaska.

"Empty forest syndrome" is the absence of nearly all wild game and non-game species of birds and animals from an area. The first to be run off are exotic predators like wolverines, lynx and marten and birds like kingfishers. Over-hunted bull moose become fewer and smaller in stature. "Cow permits" are then issued. The next generation of cows, having lost their mothers early, are undersized when they give birth.

A neighbor once witnessed an injured cow (a wonderful local moose) successfully fight off a young grizzly to protect her calf. But today's orphaned, inexperienced mothers are more likely to desert their calves when threatened by dogs or other predators. Loose dogs take many calves.

People like to live where moose like to live -- that's why there are so many moose in Anchorage. Outside Anchorage, over-hunting and off-road traffic drive wild animals out of easy, prime habitats into ever more remote and difficult terrain -- that's why there are so few animals around Hatcher Pass.

"I've never seen such a large area with so little wildlife," says a trapper friend. "I don't understand. Is it the hunting, the trapping, the four-wheelers, the big-wheelers, the tracked vehicles or the snowmachines?"

Hatcher Pass is "Jim Creek in the sky," a recreational dumping ground and staging area for vehicular penetration of the deepest, highest and most rugged refuges to which surviving moose have been driven. Any stray bears, moose or caribou encountered along the way are shot or spooked into the gun sights of the next hunting party.

Many animals killed around Hatcher Pass each hunting season are probably transients. Left alone, they would repopulate the area. But as long as Alaskans can ride around outdoors, they don't seem to care about a prime wilderness and the great herds it once held.

Moose are not just great wads of freezer-filling meat; they are a "keystone species." Moose activities such as grazing, pruning, trampling, stirring up muck, pooping and dying make it possible for other animal, bird, insect and plant species to thrive.

This works both ways: a wilderness narrowly managed for moose will inevitably ruin the environment for the moose as well. Different parts of nature cannot be managed separately. The wild is an interdependent system where every bird, animal, insect and plant ultimately depends upon the health and vitality of everything else. To accommodate recreational entitlements, however, the state is artificially attempting to squeeze more moose out of the land.

But Alaska's wildlands and wild animals are being used up for immediate gratification with such intensity they can no longer renew themselves. Many wildlife species are in trouble and their habitats overrun with vehicles. Yet the state insists upon narrowly managing entire wild systems for the sole purpose of promoting an apparently unsustainable level of hunting pressure on moose and caribou.

The sensible, scientific way for the state to have initiated an intensive (and escalating) predator-control program would have been to first conduct a comprehensive, uniform survey of wildlife populations in general. But no; state Game Board members just declared an "emergency" and started shooting.

The basic fact about Alaska's management emphasis on moose, wolves, caribou and bears is that few reliable counts of these species were available when predator killing began. Since the state still doesn't know how many animals there are, claims of "limited success" from wolf-kill areas are no basis for scientific comparison, only anecdotes to be compared with the anecdotal information used to justify intensive predator control in the first place.

Hatcher Pass is not the only "empty forest" in Alaska ("Little Su becoming a victim of those who love it," Outdoors column, May 28). Alaskans appear to love motorized equipment more than wilderness.

So much has already been lost. Few seem to notice or care. I refer to the loss of the sparkling diversity of life in healthy wild systems. But for many modern Alaskans, the mere absence of pavement constitutes wilderness. The land and animals of Alaska await the renewal of our wisdom.

Rudy Wittshirk is an outdoorsman, writer and photographer. He lives in Willow.

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