Responding to the bellowing of several Fairbanks moose hunters who complained about the large-scale cow moose hunt in game management Unit 20A south of Fairbanks, the Alaska Board of Game on Friday reluctantly approved a scaled-down version of the controversial hunt.
Instead of aiming for a harvest of 600 antlerless moose, as the Department of Fish and Game has done the last four years, the kill quota for this year's hunt only will be 200.
In addition, hunters will be prohibited from shooting any cows accompanied by calves, as well as calves themselves.
The department also will close several areas where high numbers of cows have been harvested in the past four years.
"I'm not totally happy, but I'm pacified," Loren 'Shorty' Hite, one of several local hunters who submitted proposals to eliminate the cow hunt, said as he walked out of a conference room at Pike's Waterfront Lodge, where the game board is meeting to make changes to trapping and hunting regulations in the Interior.
The game board finished dealing with proposals pertaining to Fairbanks-area game management units on Friday and will conclude its meeting today by finishing miscellaneous business.
The Department of Fish and Game had recommended a harvest of at least 300 antlerless moose to keep the population from growing but compromised with local advisory committees on the 200 quota.
"I think for one year, this compromise is acceptable," state wildlife biologist Don Young said. Young manages the hunt.
Biologists say moose in the Tanana Flats and Alaska Range foothills south of Fairbanks are showing signs of nutritional stress, evidenced by the lowest twinning rates in the state, lower calf weights than other moose around Alaska and high rates of browse removal.
During an hour-long presentation to board members on Friday, Young detailed the status of the herd and said biologists have yet to see any improvements even though the population has been reduced from about 17,000 to 14,500 as a result of antlerless hunts the past four years. The management population objective for the unit is 10,000 to 12,000 moose. Young said he suspects the herd will continue to grow if only 200 cows are removed from the population.
Several board members questioned the scaled-down hunt in an area that is identified as an intensive management unit and has a moose population that is above the management objective.
While he understands the social concerns and supported the lower quota, board member Ted Spraker of Soldotna, a retired moose biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, spoke in favor of a higher cow harvest.
"You have them, you can't stockpile them, and a lot of people would like to use them," Spraker said. "This board's goal and challenge is to use the best data available to do the best we can for the health of the moose population. I understand the social concerns but you have to set them aside to do what's best for the moose population."
But the department's regional supervisor, David James, reminded board members that the 200 cow quota was part of a deal the department had struck with advisory committees to keep the hunt going. The advisory committees, made of local residents, have veto authority over antlerless moose hunts and it was all the department could do to get them to endorse a scaled-down hunt, James said.
"I strongly suspect if we went up to 300 permits next year the people would feel we did not abide by that agreement," he said. "I know biologically (the reason for a cow hunt) seems crystal clear to us sitting around this table, but we have substantial numbers of the public who have not been able to get where we are."
The department plans to continue to work on educating the public about the biological reasons for antlerless hunts, James told the board.
"Where that will lead us is to a public that's not ready to bolt on us and start censoring our cow moose hunts," he said.
The department also will structure this year's hunt to direct hunters into areas where fewer moose have been taken in the last four years in an attempt to distribute the harvest, he said.
Fairbanks board member Dick Burley called the controversy over the Unit 20A cow hunt "a big blow up about nothing." Fairbanks hunters should be grateful for the opportunity to harvest a moose, even if it is a cow, he said.
"You can't bank them," he said. "You gotta use them."
The scaled-down version of the 20A hunt was "a concession that had to be made," board member Ben Grussendorf, of Sitka, said.
"The interested public, or in this case a pressure group, has to start seeing with their own eyes the range and nutritional stress problems before they come around," he said.
Anchorage board member Bob Bell said scaling the hunt back slightly for one year wouldn't create a biological emergency.
"It seems to me like this would be a good compromise to get the community on board," he said.
Debby Waugamon-Curnow, who was voted onto the Fairbanks advisory committee as a result of controversy surrounding the hunt, said she appreciated James' speech to board members and the fact the board listened by adopting the reduced harvest.
"I think it's going to go a long ways toward having the public recognize Fish and Game is taking our opinions into consideration," she said.
Spraker and board chairman Cliff Judkins of Wasilla, who also wanted a higher cow harvest, disagreed with prohibiting hunters to kill a calf or a cow accompanied by a calf, another concession to local advisory committees.
"I just hope the 200 or so people who do not approve of harvesting these moose, after we have three or four bad winters and lose a bunch of moose, will come back and tell Fish and Game we were wrong; we should have harvested these moose when we had them," Spraker said.
Hite, who belongs to that group, said hunters just want to make sure the department is doing the right thing before shooting too many more cow moose. The reduced harvest will give biologists and hunters a chance to see the results of more than 2,200 cows that have been harvested in the last four years.
"If they're really starving to death, then I agree the herd needs to be thinned," he said. "I don't know if that's a fact."