Multiple Factors Make Managing Moose in Alaska
More Difficult Than Scandinavia
By Tim Mowry
In Sweden, a country that is approximately one-fifth the size of Alaska, hunters kill about 80,000 moose per year, give or take a few thousand.
In Norway, which is slightly smaller than Sweden, the average annual moose harvest is 35,000.
In Alaska, hunters are lucky if they kill 7,000 moose per year.
So why don’t we manage moose in Alaska like they do in Sweden?
It’s a question that state wildlife biologist Don Young at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks is sick and tired of hearing.
“It comes up a lot at advisory committee meetings and in public forums,” said Young, who oversees moose management in Game Management Unit 20A south of Fairbanks. “It’s one of the primary mantras for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.”
It’s also totally unrealistic, the Alaska biologist said.
“Comparing (Alaska and Sweden) is just bogus,” Young said. “The uninformed hunter who hears this without getting all the facts is duped into believing it. I feel strongly about getting it out on the table and debunking it, because it’s not true.”
Perhaps the best person to debunk that myth is Scott Brainerd, a research coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Conservation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Brainerd, 51, spent 15 years working as national wildlife expert for the Norwegian Association of Hunters based in Oslo and another five years working for the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research before returning to Alaska to take a job with the Department of Fish and Game last summer.
“It’s a lot harder to manage moose in Alaska than in Scandinavia because there are a lot of factors we have here that you don’t have over there,” Brainerd said.
Those factors include everything from a milder climate to unlimited hunter access to better habitat to fewer predators to uniform hunting pressure.
“They almost farm the moose,” Brainerd said of Scandinavian wildlife managers.
Even though Alaska and Scandinavia are located at similar latitudes, they have very different climates because the Gulf Stream waters off the west coast of Norway push warm air into Norway, Finland and Sweden.
Norway is the northern-most country in the world to have open waters. Temperatures of 20 degrees below zero in the winter are rare in bothNorway and Sweden, even in the far north.
“You can grow apples above the Arctic Circle in Norway,” Brainerd noted. “There is no permafrost in Norway.”
The warmer climate and richer soil in Scandinavia results in better forage for moose and makes it easier for them to survive in the winter, Brainerd said.
The timber industry is huge in Scandinavia and timber companies grow trees, i.e. scotch pine, that provide a never-ending supply of browse for moose. Moose strip the bark off scotch pine trees, which, surprising as it might seem to Alaskans, is “fairly nutritious,” Brainerd said.
Clear cutting in the 1950s and ’60s in Scandinavia created a tremendous amount of moose habitat that resulted in an explosion in the moose population, particularly in Sweden, that persists today.
“I couldn’t believe it when I first got over there in 1988,” Brainerd said. “They were everywhere, like white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania.”
In Alaska, most of the new browse for moose is the result of wildfires, which are unpredictable and uncontrolled, and winter mortality is much higher, especially for young moose.
Scandinavian moose are “considerably” smaller than Alaska moose, Brainerd said. Trophy, or gold medal as they are called in Sweden, moose are extremely rare because few moose live long enough to reach trophy status.
“Very few moose make it past 2 or 3 years of age,” he said.
When he worked in Oslo, Brainerd had the antlers from a 45-inch bull moose he shot in Southeast Alaska hanging in his office. While a 45-inch antler spread is respectable, it’s by no means considered a trophy moose in Alaska, where many areas require moose to have a 50-inch antler spread to be legal.
“People would come in and their jaws would drop when they’d see that thing,” Brainerd said. “I’d tell them, ‘That’s a little Alaska moose’ and they’d always scoff at me.”
Moose in Scandinavia, even big ones, don’t have brow tines like they do in Alaska. Most Scandinavian moose have “points” protruding from one palm, like a hand with fingers, Brainerd said.
“You rarely see a moose with more than three points on a side,” he said.
Lack of predators also plays a role in the surplus of moose in Scandinavia compared to Alaska.
Bears and wolves were extinct in Norway for decades and are just now beginning to reappear. In Sweden, where predators are rebounding quicker than in Norway, there are still only about 200 wolves and 2,500 brown bears, Brainerd said.
In Alaska, there are an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 wolves and nobody knows how many bears, which have been proven to be proficient killers of newborn moose. The rough estimate for grizzly bears in Alaska is 30,000 and the number of black bears is much higher.
“People think if you wipe out all the predators you’re going to have a moose behind every tree but that’s not the way it works,” Brainerd said. “Even if you eliminated all predators, you might be able to stack up moose for a while but then you have the challenge of keeping the population within the bounds of its food supply.
“Without even hunting pressure you won’t be able to keep that population within the bounds of its food supply and it will collapse,” he said. “You’d have to have roads everywhere.”
Roads are another thing Scandinavia has that Alaska doesn’t.
There are almost 265,000 miles of roads in Sweden and 57,000 miles of roads in Norway compared to just a little more than 4,100 miles of roads in Alaska.
“The road network is such that there’s almost no refuge for moose from hunting,” Brainerd said. “Moose hunting occurs on basically every square inch of Scandinavia.”
Unlike Alaska, where only 1 percent of land is privately owned if you don’t count Native corporations — which restrict hunting on their lands — nearly all of the land in Sweden and Norway is privately owned and hunting is allowed, in part to cut down on vehicle and train collisions with moose and, in the case of timber companies, to reduce predation on trees by moose. Landowners work with biologists to determine harvest quotas for their lands and most of the time hunters reach it or come close to it.
“They manage their moose through hunting,” Brainerd said.
Moose hunting in Scandinavia is very different than Alaska.
Hunting is done in teams or groups, and dogs are used to track down and find moose, Brainerd said. Hunters are restricted to land on which they have hunting rights and are allowed only to hunt on that land. Hunters are allowed to hunt on roads and in national parks, he said.
“It’s so much easier to hunt in Scandinavia,” Brainerd said. “It’s more like a military operation. You’ve got an area allotted to you, and you hunt in that area.
“Teams are organized as such that leaders report the harvest every day to a management center,” he said. “They report how many moose they shoot every day and how many moose they see every day. They track the harvest on a daily basis and shut off the season when they’ve shot the quota for that area.”
It’s not uncommon for teams of hunters to shoot multiple moose on the same day, he said.
“You can shoot as many moose as you need to shoot to reach the quota,” Brainerd said. “I’ve shot three moose in a week over there. It’s no big deal. I met guys in their 70s who have shot 150 moose during their life.”
While most moose hunting is done on foot — ATVs are not popular inScandinavia — hunters use specially-made “moose tracks” to haul moose out of the woods and most processing is done at home.
“You have a motorized rig pull it out of the woods, you throw it on a flatbed truck and take it back to the processing center where you have electric meat saws,” Brainerd said. “We could process a whole moose in 20 minutes.”
A large portion of the moose harvested in Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, are calves, yearlings and cows, a management technique that is frowned upon by many Alaskahunters who oppose shooting calves and cows but one that results in a larger moose population given the right circumstances like those in Scandinavia.
“About 60 percent of the moose they shoot are calves and yearlings,” Brainerd said. “They shoot about 25 to 30 percent of the moose population every year.”
Ironically, while some Alaska hunters want what Scandinavian hunters have, i.e. more moose, many Scandinavian hunters want what Alaska hunters have, i.e. big moose with big antlers.
“Scandinavian hunters all dream of coming to Alaska to shoot a big moose and Alaska hunters dream about the Scandinavian harvest numbers,” Brainerd said.
Another odd twist is that for all the differences between Alaska and Scandinavia when it comes to moose management and hunting, there is one statistical similarity that Alaskan hunters jealous of those in Swedenand Norway should keep in mind — Alaskans actually kill more moose per capita than hunters do in Sweden or Norway.
Alaska, population 670,000, has a moose harvest per capita of 0.010 while in Sweden, population 9.2 million, it is 0.009. In Norway, population 4.8 million, the moose harvest per capita is 0.007.
“When it comes right down to it they’re shooting proportionately about the same number of moose we are,” Brainerd said. “There are a lot more people over there.”
Alaska Fish & Wildlife News - Tim Mowry is an outdoor writer and journalist in Fairbanks, Alaska. This article was first published Sept. 3, 2009, in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and is reprinted with permission.