Low bull moose density jeopardizing 17C winter hunt?

Dec 6, 2016

Hunt still open, but Fish and Game has warned that the bull-to-cow ratio in areas near Dillingham is low, perhaps low enough to limit some hunting.

The Department of Fish and Game has raised concerns about the number of bull moose in area 17C, the game management unit in the middle of western Bristol Bay. While the Department has not yet recommended curbing opportunity during the winter hunt currently underway, that option is not necessarily off the table. KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more.

Audio Transcript: Wildlife biologist Neil Barten spoke to a special meeting of the Nushagak Fish and Game Advisory Committee Monday night, bringing them up to speed on a recent moose survey effort.

"We were able to, for one of the few years in many years, get out last week and conduct moose composition surveys," he said.

It’s been a few years because there hasn’t been enough snow early in the season before bulls shed their antlers. That makes spotting them from the air practical and easy. Putting an estimate together involves flying a count area extensively for days on end, circling every animal to see if it’s a bull or cow. The recent snow made this possible, and the Department flew a lot last week.

"I myself spent forty-four hours in the backseat of a Super Cub, flying transects and circles, which was very interesting, a little tiring, but I think we got good data," Barten said. 

Map of GMU 17's in northern and western Bristol Bay.
Credit State of Alaska

He documented a lot of moose overall, and had little concern about the size of the herd. Some areas, those hardest to reach for most hunters, had very high bull-to-cow ratios. But other areas, notably those closer to where hunting occurs, did not.

“The area in the lower Nushagak stuck out as certainly an outlier, very different than the other areas, and we had just over 11 bulls per 100 cows. And it was a big sample size, again we had 453 total moose.”

Eleven bulls per 100 cows is not a biological emergency, Barten said, but is lower than a 25-to-30 bull to 100 cow ratio managed for around the state. He told the members of the advisory committee to keep in mind that this concern is based on preliminary numbers from one year’s survey, and that it’s possible some bulls have already shed antlers, or could be grouped up elsewhere.

Still, the ratio was low enough that Barten feels curbing some opportunity might be the right thing to do.

“This winter hunt that’s a thirty day season, on top of a twenty-five day fall season that provides for unlimited opportunity if the conditions are right, worries the heck out of me.”

The fall harvest was a little higher than the past few years, with close to 190 bulls recorded taken. What concerns Barten is that winter travel conditions will improve to the point that more hunters than usual will get more opportunity than usual.

“You can put a hurt on bulls in a real hurry, and you can lower the bull to cow ratio to levels that we’d rather not see that low, if people have access to the moose.”

The Department has the authority to change the hunt by emergency order if necessary. Barten told the AC he was not recommending any changes yet, but would get more information by the end of the week and ask the committee’s blessing if changes are to be made. Some members spoke in favor of taking a conservative approach and would support limiting hunting this winter. Chairman Frank Woods said if it comes to it, he would prefer to see the winter hunt stay as is and make changes next fall.

"I would see this winter hunt as a meat hunt, and preserve that hunt for the people that need it. But conservatively look at the fall hunt as the way to curb that activity on the lower Nushagak if you got a low bull-to-cow ratio, or whatever it may be."

Over the past 20 years, the effort during the 17B and C winter hunt has more than tripled, with now more than 300 permits issued most years. But the harvest has stayed about the same, with seldom more than 50 bulls reported taken each winter.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.