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McGrath moose flourish

SURPRISE: Latest census negates
earlier cries for area predator control.

Edition: Final Page: B1

Elizabeth Manning Anchorage Daily News Staff

A new census this fall found that moose around McGrath aren't doing as poorly as state biologists thought. In fact, the new estimate is twice what biologists came up with last year, indicating the population may be growing instead of declining.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials said the population hasn't doubled. Instead, they blamed a faulty count last year.

Still, they called the new census ''good news,'' and said it shows the moose population at least is holding steady over the last five years. That knowledge eliminates the need for controversial predator control measures or further moose hunting restrictions, officials said.

''The new numbers lead me to conclude that lethal predator control measures are not warranted and subsistence hunting should be allowed to continue,'' Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue said in a press release issued Tuesday.

Alaska Board of Game members learned of the new data Tuesday morning during a briefing by Wayne Regelin, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. The briefing came during the final day of a five-day meeting at the Holiday Inn in downtown Anchorage.

Board member Mike Fleagle of McGrath, a strong proponent of wolf control, said he thinks the state should still pursue predator control programs in remote parts of the hunting unit around McGrath and in other parts of the state.

Fleagle said the high moose count shows that local efforts to kill wolves through hunting and trapping can make a difference. To encourage people to kill more predators, the McGrath Native Village Council has offered hunters $100 for wolves harvested legally in unit 19D, a move that significantly increased the wolf harvest. Recent mild winters and reduced moose harvests by hunters also contributed to the increased numbers, he said.

''We haven't seen the total turnaround (in moose population) we want, but it is looking better,'' Fleagle said.

Critics, however, said the new census underscores just how shaky the state's data can be in making predator control decisions. Some questioned whether the moose population has suffered from a serious decline at all, let alone whether wolves are to blame.

''People were crying 'Wolf, wolf!' But that may not even be an issue,'' said Paul Joslin, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

Based in part on earlier data showing that moose numbers had dropped by more than 50 percent between 1996 and 2000, state officials had been considering a state-sponsored wolf kill program this winter in a part of unit 19D East around McGrath. A governor-appointed task force also had suggested that the state hire local hunters to kill bears in the same region, probably by shooting them around bait stations.

Had those measures happened, they would have been the first lethal predator control programs allowed by Gov. Tony Knowles. The new moose count, however, shows that neither control program is needed, Rue said.

Rue also credited the healthier moose population in part to McGrath residents culling wolves, saying those efforts had likely been effective. But now, Rue said, hunters need to switch their efforts to bears.

A study last summer found that black bears kill far more moose calves than wolves in that part of the hunting unit. Wolves and grizzlies each accounted for about 18 percent of the calves killed, compared to a 64 percent mortality by black bears.

''My hope is that local people will get out there and start hunting bears,'' Rue said.

Both Rue and Regelin said studies in McGrath will continue. The state can apply lessons learned from the census data and calf mortality studies in McGrath to other parts of the state, Regelin said.

Biologists in October counted 1,800 moose within a 5,200-square-mile area close to McGrath, he said. Last year they counted 830 moose in the same area.

Cathie Harms, a Fish and Game spokeswoman in Fairbanks, said last year's study was hampered by a lack of snow cover that made moose hard to see, wind that made it difficult for the planes to fly low, and a sampling error in which biologists surveyed parts of the unit that happened to have few moose. The agency has much more confidence in the new study, she said.

Regelin said the state doesn't have reliable moose counts before 1996, but previous estimates indicate that the moose population used to be much higher, somewhere between 5,000 to 6,000 moose.

Fleagle said that matches local observations.

Gordon Haber, an independent wildlife biologist who works for Friends of Animals, said predator control decisions ought to be based on science, not on anecdotal information. Because the state doesn't have data showing the moose population is decreasing, he doesn't think locals should be encouraged to kill bears and wolves.

''That is complete nonsense,'' he said.

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