FAIRBANKS -- Even after a detailed explanation of how the Alaska Department of Fish and Game counts moose in the Tanana Flats and Alaska Range foothills -- complete with charts, graphs and maps -- Curt Hamlin wasn't buying it.
The 58-year-old aircraft mechanic and pilot couldn't believe a department survey that estimated the number of moose in game management unit 20A at more than 15,000.
"I spend a lot of time flying and I don't see them," said Hamlin during a break in a recent six-hour moose management meeting at Pike's Waterfront Lodge. "I'm just not convinced of their count and the whole thing is based on that count."
The "whole thing," as Hamlin put it, is the department's justification for large-scale antlerless moose hunts in unit 20A. In the last four years, hunters have killed more than 2,100 antlerless moose -- about 90 percent of them cows.
Increasing concerns from hunters prompted the Department of Fish and Game to hold a moose management workshop to explain the biological reasons behind the antlerless hunts. The workshop attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 hunters.
Using graphs, charts, studies and maps to illustrate more than three decades of data, state wildlife biologists explained the history of moose populations in unit 20A, how they count moose and come up with an overall population estimate, where moose move during the summer and winter, what signs of nutritional stress have been documented and why state law mandates that cows be culled from the herd.
"I just came here to learn more about moose," said Shawn McCullough, 40, of North Pole, who works for Alaska Communications Systems.
McCullough, who described himself as a "meat hunter," supports the cow hunts. He has shot a cow moose in unit 20A three of the last four years.
One of the biggest hunter complaints heard was the lack of moose in accessible areas like Rex Trail.
"They've cleaned the moose out of the areas where you can get at them," said Fairbanks hunter John Morak, who hunts in unit 20A and has followed the antlerless hunt controversy closely.
Morak said the state should have shut down the hunt this season, given the controversy. The antlerless hunt remains open through Feb. 28; hunters have already killed more than half of the 600-moose quota.
The moose herd in unit 20A is in the worst physical shape of any moose population in Alaska, said research biologist Rod Boertje, who has worked for the Department of Fish and Game more than 20 years.
Statistics show that 20A moose are in trouble and the population needs to be thinned, Boertje said. Moose have to be in good condition to become pregnant, which means many cows in unit 20A aren't getting enough to eat. Fewer pregnant cows means fewer calves are added to the population, he said.
While he has heard "horror stories" from other hunters in unit 20A, Bob Kempson, a hunting guide there, hasn't seen a drop in the moose numbers where he hunts. "I see plenty of cows and plenty of bulls," said Kempson.
Even so, Kempson supports the antlerless hunts.
Richard Williams is not a fan of shooting cow moose, but he can understand the biological reasoning behind the antlerless hunts.
"Now that I look at all the facts and figures ... I don't have a whole lot of argument with it," he said.
"A lot of the griping and complaining going on doesn't have anything to do with biology