The bottom line for Loren "Shorty" Hite is that he doesn't see as many moose as he used to where he hunts on the Tanana Flats.
"I've been hunting in that area since I was a kid, and I'm 60 now," said Hite, providing some historical perspective for his observation. "I was out there 20 days this season, and I saw about 20 moose.
"Three or four years ago, you could got out in one evening and see 20 moose," he said. "That's a huge difference."
Hite is one in a growing legion of local hunters trying to shoot down the large-scale cow moose hunts the state Department of Fish and Game has allowed in game management Unit 20A south of Fairbanks the past four years. Hunters have killed approximately 2,100 cow moose since the department switched the antlerless hunt from a limited drawing permit hunt to an unlimited registration permit hunt in 2003.
State game managers contend the liberal cow harvests are needed to stunt the growth of the moose population on the Tanana Flats and in the Alaska Range foothills, which is showing signs of nutritional stress. Twinning rates have dropped dramatically. Newborn calves are smaller than they used to be. Cows aren't having calves as young or as often as they used to.
If hunters don't kill the moose, wolves or winter will, said Fairbanks area biologist Don Young, who is ramrodding the hunt for the department.
"It's a use it or lose it philosophy," said Young, citing a management mantra he has repeated numerous times over the past four years. "Not only do we want to reduce these densities so it's better for the range and increases productivity, we want the public to utilize these moose before we lose them. We've put an incredible number of moose in peoples' freezers instead of losing them to predation and hard winters. That's exactly what we want to do."
Some hunters like Hite, however, say the department has gone too far, too fast.
"What they're doing is not working," said Hite, a retired gold miner and construction worker. "They're devastating areas that people can get to and still not getting moose out of areas that aren't accessible.
"I'm not a biologist. I just know what I see," said Hite, who has written letters to both Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd and Gov. Sarah Palin to get the hunt stopped. "I think there's less moose out there then they think there is."
He isn't the only one.
Wayne Walters, who lives 15 miles south of Nenana in the heart of Unit 20A, has started a petition to stop the antlerless hunt because of what he said is "a steady decline in the moose population in certain areas."
The 70-year-old Walters had gathered almost 400 signatures as of last week and said people in the area "overwhelmingly agree" the hunt should be halted for at least two years. At a meeting in Nenana last week, there was even talk about hiring a private plane to check the veracity of the department's population estimates, he said. One local resident traveled 80 miles out the Rex Trail and back and saw only three moose, Walters said.
"Right now our moose population is down, period," said Walters, who has lived in the area for 32 years. "That's the long and short of it."
It was because of testimony like Walters' that the Denali Borough passed a resolution last month requesting that the state Board of Game stop the hunt, borough Mayor Dave Talerico said. Borough residents say they are seeing fewer moose, trails are getting chewed up by off-road vehicles and non-local hunters are leaving litter and trash in their wake, he said.
"There's been quite an outcry here," Talerico said. "There's no moose near the Parks Highway or near any of the trails. We're just not too sure about what's going on."
It's not just cows and calves that are being killed in the antlerless hunt, either. Bulls that have shed their antlers are fair game, too. The season is open to Feb. 28, and bulls begin shedding their antlers in early December.
That's the part of the hunt that bothers hunters like Bill Larry of Fairbanks.
"I'm not opposed to a cow or calf hunt, but I'm sure changing my mind on the antlerless thing when they run it into the time when bulls are dropping their horns," said Larry, a member of the Fairbanks advisory committee who originally supported the hunt but has since switched camps.
So far in this year's hunt, 18 bulls have been reported taken. Even though that number is so small that Young says it's not biologically significant, the late season doesn't sit well with some hunters.
"It's a ridiculous deal," said Larry, adding that pregnant cows are also being killed.
Many hunters are opposed to shooting cow moose for philosophical reasons. That ranchers don't kill their breeding stock is an argument Young has heard over and over.
"That analogy is absolutely wrong," Young said. "What they assume when they say that is there's an unlimited food supply. A rancher builds up his herd to the point where he has to balance the feed he has against the number of animals he has. Once he gets to that point, he gets rid of the majority of everything he produces. He needs to keep enough back for breeding stock and he might replace some of his cows, but the rest of them he gets rid of as calves or yearlings."
Some hunters even go so far as to blame the antlerless hunt for the proliferation of grizzly bears and wolves around Fairbanks this summer and winter. A dozen nuisance grizzly bears were shot in Fairbanks this summer, and a pack of wolves roaming the Two Rivers/North Pole area for the past two months has eaten at least three dogs.
"Maybe that's why wolves are in town eating dogs, because there's nothing left for them to eat," said 73-year-old Loran Benham, another member of the anti-antlerless camp.
Benham doesn't even hunt in Unit 20A, but he's worried the area where he does hunt - the Fortymile country - will be invaded by hunters from Unit 20A when there aren't any moose left.
"Once you shoot all the moose (in Unit 20A) where are they going to go?" he said of hunters.
As a result of the growing opposition, the Department of Fish and Game is hosting a public forum on Jan. 13 to discuss and explain moose management strategies, including the reasons for antlerless hunts, in game management Unit 20. The workshop will be held at Pike's Waterfront Lodge from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The meeting will give the department an opportunity to share information about the antlerless hunt and get "a better flavor of what the hunting public is seeing," according to region director David James.
"We have a lot of information about the (moose) population out there that most people are not aware of," he said. "This is an opportunity for us to help a lot of people come up to speed on the biological story we have for 20A and clear up the confusion and misunderstanding of what we're trying to do out there."
Considering that more than 2,100 moose have been killed in the past four years, it's no surprise that hunters are seeing fewer moose, Young said. Neither is he bothered by the criticism the department has received .
"Whenever hunters see fewer moose, whether it's real or imagined, you're going to get that criticism," Young said. "Hunters always want to see more moose."
The fact that some areas are getting hit harder than others is inevitable, he said.
"As unfortunate as it is for hunters in those areas, it doesn't concern me on a large-scale management perspective," the biologist said. "Our objective is to manage moose for moderate densities over the long term rather than high densities over the short term."
If biologists begin to detect signs that moose are becoming more productive, the antlerless hunt will be scaled back, Young said. So far, biologists haven't seen that.
"We don't know how much of a lag effect there will be," Young said.
While the number of complaints about fewer moose are increasing, the harvest numbers don't seem to be decreasing, Young noted.
"Hunters are still getting those moose," he said. "If hunters aren't seeing any moose, why is it that harvests are so high?"
Hunts have support
Not everyone is against the Unit 20A antlerless hunt.
In fact, based on the number of hunters who register and take part in the hunt, there are more people who support it than oppose it. This year, the state issued 3,490 permits for the hunt.
In addition, the department had to have the support of at least three of four advisory committees to get approval from the state Board of Game to implement the hunt.
The Fairbanks advisory committee has been a staunch supporter of the antlerless hunt. Committee chairman Mike Kramer calls it a "success story" that should be used as a model for the rest of the state.
"We're fortunate we have enough moose out there that we can share them with the rest of the state," he said. "If the rest of the state were managed the way 20A is, people would have no reason to come to 20A."
Most people don't understand the biological reasoning behind the antlerless hunts and have been spoiled by high moose populations in Unit 20A as a result of several mild winters, Kramer said.
The Unit 20A moose population is also the most-studied moose herd in the state, he said. Biologists monitor the health of the herd by tracking about 100 radio-collared cow moose and tracking harvest trends over the years.
"We have to rely on the information provided to us by the department," Kramer said.
Many members on the Fairbanks advisory committee were skeptical of the hunt to begin with, too, but the department "proved up" on its biology, he said.
"Most of us think this is the best thing for moose in Unit 20A," Kramer said.
While the Unit 20A hunt has spawned the biggest debate, antlerless hunts in other parts of Unit 20 are also attracting attention.
The department issued 900 drawing permits to shoot cow moose in Unit 20D around Delta Junction last fall, and hunters killed approximately 500 moose between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15. The Delta advisory committee, which was originally opposed to the Unit 20A antlerless hunt, endorsed the 20D cow hunt and will likely endorse another cow hunt next season, though probably on a smaller scale, committee chairman Don Quarberg said.
"When you've got intensive management that's what it's all about, you're going to have cows to harvest," he said.
Some hunters are opposed to shooting cows and calves no matter what the biological argument, he said.
"I grew up in Wisconsin, and they wouldn't shoot does there for a long time, either; now look what's going on," said Quarberg, referring to large-scale doe hunts for white-tail deer in the Lower 48.
In Unit 20B, which covers much of the road system around Fairbanks, the state issued 361 drawing permits for antlerless moose last season and hunters reported killing 119 cow and calf moose.
Show me the moose
There are still too many moose in Unit 20A, according to Young. The state estimates there are still about 15,000 moose in the unit.
"Baloney," Benham said. "I just don't believe there's that many moose out there."
Neither do a lot of other hunters.
"Show me where they're at," Larry said. "I've got a supercub; I fly that whole thing, and there used to be moose everywhere."
The department's management objective for Unit 20A is 10,000 to 12,000 moose, a number some hunters feel is too low.
"You can't tell me it takes 660 acres to support two moose," Hite said, referring to the department's goal of two to two and half moose per square mile.
If he had his way, Young would manage Unit 20A to support a bigger moose population by implementing prescribed wildfires to improve the habitat. The department has wanted to conduct a 250,000-acre prescribed burn in Unit 20A for the past decade but has been unable to do so for a variety of reasons.
"We're keeping the moose down to what the habitat can support," he said. "We'd prefer to bring the habitat up to meet the moose population we have."
Without prescribed burns or predator control, however, about the only thing the department can do is manipulate the human harvest.
The department has been pushing for higher cow harvests in Unit 20A for more than 20 years but it wasn't until seven years ago that it finally received the support of local advisory committees - behind the urging of Young - to go ahead with the large-scale antlerless hunts.
"If we would have instituted antlerless hunts 10 years earlier," Young said, "we wouldn't have had to institute such drastic measures."
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.