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Moose Research in Unit 22 Could Explain Declining Population

Moose nutrition throughout the Seward Peninsula is currently the focus of one of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s latest research projects. Results from this project could help ADF&G better respond to declining moose populations in Unit 22D.

The four-year study started in the fall of 2017 by setting up radio-tracking collars on moose in Unit 22D and 22C. Warren Hansen, region 5 research biologist for the department, is leading the project. Similar moose nutrition studies Hansen is involved with are also underway in Unit 23 and Unit 18.

The Nome Fish & Game office isn’t the only one interested in learning more about what factors affect moose nutrition. Researchers in Kenai are currently studying how a warming climate will affect moose across the state of Alaska.

Hansen says besides tracking moose movements through this study, Fish & Game can also determine what is killing the animals, the average rate at which moose are having twins, and much more.

“And so with all of the moose we collar we are monitoring for mortality. And if a moose dies, we try to get to that mortality site as quickly as possible to determine why that moose died. And all of that can play a vital role in understanding the population dynamics of growth or decline.”

According to Hansen, the moose nutrition project helps the department capture a sample size of 60 animals.  

Out of 80 collars Fish & Game deployed on moose in the Seward Peninsula so far, about ten of the animals have died since the fall of 2017. Hansen says a majority of those were killed by bears.

Bill Dunker, an area biologist for ADF&G, says the department wants to understand more about the brown bear population and its effect on moose in the Nome-area. Hansen says his research project can also gather that type of information, which could help indicate whether or not predator control is needed in Unit 22.

“We can’t just go out and start controlling the population without knowing why or how many or what needs to be done first. Like Bill mentioned we have a high harvest rate of bears in this area and if we were to say if a certain predator is responsible for a population decline, what would we need to do to see a response in that prey population?”

According to Dunker, the Unit 22 moose population has been identified by the board of game as especially important as a food source for Alaskans and as a result, is eligible for intensive management, including predator control. Nome’s Fish & Game office does not currently have a predator control program in place, but Hansen says it’s just one of the options available.

“(If) the population falls under some critical value, then the Board (of Game) deems it needs to be under intensive management. There’s sort of a series of steps that are taken from liberalizing seasons, liberalizing bag limits, liberalizing means and ability, habitat manipulation, and each one is sort of like a progressively more extreme measure.”

As Hansen puts it, the department won’t jump to the most extreme measure just because the bull to cow moose ratio has declined to an unsustainable rate, like it has in Unit 22D.

Dunker says part of the reason there is not predator control in place for Unit 22 is because “we are currently meeting intensive management population and harvest objectives established by the board of game for Unit 22.”

In 2020, after the third year of this study is complete, Fish & Game hopes to have baseline data that can reliably help answer why the bull moose population is declining in certain parts of Unit 22, and how connected the moose are to the brown bear population in the area. 

Image at top: A bull moose. Photo in public domain, via Pixabay (2019).