A year ago the Legislature funded a $2.1 million capital improvement project for the Alaska Moose Federation (AMF) to raise and transplant orphaned moose calves and salvage moose killed in vehicle accidents. Earlier this year the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) issued permits to the AMF to provide supplement feed to moose and to capture and relocate adult moose that are causing problems or living near the road system. Now the AMF is requesting $14 million in state funds to continue and expand these programs and initiate a wildlife education program.
These programs are not a wise expenditure of state funds or good wildlife management policy. As a former moose research biologist and former administrator for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, my concerns are both biological and administrative.
Feeding moose hay in late winter will likely fail to increase their survival. Moose require a diet high in lignin so food particles can fracture and pass through the digestive tract. Grass does not contain lignin. Moose can tolerate a diet containing some grass, but a diet containing mostly hay will plug their digestive tract and the moose will die.
In most years artificial feeding will not affect the moose survival rate. In severe winters, feeding the proper diet may increase survival. However, feeding has the potential to increase mortality due to increased stress, disease and predation. That is why most state fish and game agencies do not feed moose or deer and why the ADF&G did not do so in the past.
Each year six to 10 newly-born orphaned moose calves are turned into the ADF&G. In the past, these moose were given to zoos or research facilities. The concept of rebuilding moose populations in rural Alaska by transplanting orphaned moose is simply not feasible. There are not enough orphaned moose calves to make a difference and releasing 5-month-old moose calves in most of Alaska will simply feeds the wolves.
The idea of capturing and relocating adult moose along highway corridors or in subdivisions where they may be a nuisance to some is almost certain to fail. Immobilizing moose in late winter with a strong drug will cause a significant mortality rate. Moving the moose will greatly increase mortality because lifting and carrying the moose will increase its body temperature causing death from heat stress or cause pneumonia from inhaling food into their lungs. If a moose survives the immobilization and transport process, releasing it into new territory will likely result in death.
Darting moose along highways greatly increases the liability of the state of Alaska for accidents. It takes 8 to 12 minutes for a moose to go down after darting. Moose can and will move long distances after darting and may move across or onto nearby highways. The state will be sued for any accidents between vehicles and drugged moose because it has the “deepest pockets.” Also, the drug used to immobilize moose is a powerful narcotic fatal to humans in small doses, a single drop on the skin can cause death. All darts fired at moose must be retrieved because expended darts contain small amounts of the drug.
The AMF program to salvage moose killed by vehicles along the road system may improve meat quality due to faster processing. However, nearly all moose killed by vehicle accidents in past years were salvaged by a volunteer program administered by the Department of Public Safety. The AMF program will also salvage nearly all of the moose killed by vehicle accidents, but will cost the state $1.4 million.
It would be prudent for the Legislature to see if the current programs are successful before providing additional funds. None of the orphaned moose calves raised by the AMF last summer survived, so none could be relocated. It is too early to determine the success or failure of the other programs. A thorough biological evaluation of the various programs and an audit of expenses should be conducted before more public funds are provided to the AMF.
• Regelin is a retired moose research biologist and a former director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation (1996-2003) and deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (2004-2007).