Warren Olson and his lovely wife Jan are residents of Anchorage, and they have a gift for growing beautiful fuchsias in huge hanging baskets. In the Alaskan summers their plants are attractive to both man and beast — including the moose.
Taking a break from their conventional diet of willow, alder, and water lilies, moose have been wandering into the city limits of Anchorage to munch on gardens, shrubs, and fuchsias. Loud noises will scare away a moose temporarily. But the big guys quickly realize that two legs and a whistle is not a real threat.
Warren Olson says that a well-placed shot from a BB-gun in the moose’s rump, along with a loud yell, will usually run them off. Nonetheless, the fuchias must be hung safely on the porch near the door — because in the land of the midnight sun, a moose will sneak back after everyone’s gone to bed. (One morning the Olsons found a fearless bull moose standing on the porch enjoying a fuchsia breakfast.) In the lower forty-eight, homeowners have problems with squirrels, raccoons, and deer. In Alaska, a state that is one-fifth the size of the entire lower forty-eight but with fewer miles of road than Rhode Island, it seems like everything is bigger — including the urban wildlife problems. The moose is the largest member of the deer family in the world, and of that family, the Alaskan moose
is the largest. The big brown-black bulls can weigh upwards of 1,600 pounds. Moose are found all across northern North America. They are in all Canadian provinces, except the plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Canadian moose herd
is estimated at anywhere between half a million and a million. The range and numbers are increasing, in part because moose are learning to move into town and away from bears and wolves — their only predators other than man. In many places, like New England, moose are increasing in numbers. This is resulting in auto accidents and damage to farms and urban landscapes. Hunting with archery inside city limits is an effective and common practice to control deer in many urban areas across North America. But urban moose hunting is pushing the envelope. Gary Olson, Warren’s son and chairman of the Alaska Moose Federation
, has a better idea. “Let’s grow more moose,” he says. More moose? Well, listen why more makes sense. The Alaskan moose population is about 150,000 today. But that population has declined in recent years. For example, in one 23,000 square mile unit, the moose population reached a high of 27,500 in the fall of 1988. In 2000, the fall population in that unit was 9,000. The decline in Alaska moose is not due to hunting or natural predation, although each takes about an equal share
. Instead, the cause is largely due to a loss of habitat, and increased modern predation by trains and cars. An adult moose must eat about 40 pounds of browse a day: this includes twigs and shrubs in the winter and just about anything green in the summer. They like water lilies, in part because an adult moose needs to drink a lot of water, and submersion keeps the flies away. But when feed is scarce moose prune out the forest understory up to eight feet high. Since the adults have the greatest reach-advantage to browse, the younger, shorter moose get short-changed and starve first during bad winters. Food scarcity also impacts reproduction. A healthy, well-fed cow moose will have twins as much as 75 percent of the time. Triplets are not uncommon. A cow with little to eat will have one calf, or maybe no calves. Wild fires normally preserve the shrubby habitat moose need to survive. But increased efficiency in controlling fires means more adult trees and less browse for moose. Hungry moose, in turn, move into areas that can sustain them, which today means urban areas and right-of-ways along railroad tracks and highways. Cars, meanwhile, kill some 600 moose every year in Alaska, and moose aren’t the only losers in the collisions. The cost to repair cars struck by moose in Alaska is about $9 million a year, and collisions are on the rise. As for natural predators, brown bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are the only wild animals that can take on an adult moose. Yet while these animals take their share in the wild, they’ll feast elsewhere when the moose move into town. So, the Alaska Moose Federation has a plan — a three-fold plan: Create more suitable moose habitat in wild areas through controlled burns, establish fences and other protections for moose along roads and railroads, and relocate urban moose. Unlike deer, which have a high mortality and low survival rate when tranquilized and relocated, moose seem to be pretty durable. When you shoot a moose with a tranquilizer dart, it is so large that it may not even fall down. The sedated moose may just stand there and allow you to herd it into a cattle trailer and transport it someplace away from town. The relocation survival rate is fairly high. Alaska has 12 species of big game, but the moose is the most desired — a mature bull may yield 350 to 750 pounds of meat. Alaskan hunters harvest 6,000 to 8,000 moose a year at present, providing 3.5 million pounds of meat — an extremely important food source for many people. The moose is worth millions to the state of Alaska. And in Canada, it is estimated that moose hunting generates $500 million a year. The Alaska Moose Federation understands this value. So their focus is simply to grow more moose for everyone to enjoy — whether that means sport (and nutrition) for hunters, or great photographs for tourists. The Alaskan Moose Federation has an impressive advisory board and they offer a model for conservation that deserves support. If the Alaskan Moose Federation’s plan can work in Alaska, it might be a good model for the lower forty-eight For now, it’s a great model for preserving the giant Alaskan moose, as well as Warren and Jan Olson’s fuchias.
— James Swan is a contributing editor of ESPNOutdoors.com. He also writes for the Outdoor Channel’s Engel’s Outdoor Experience, which just won a Golden Moose for the category “Best Waterfowl Shows 2002.”