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Fate of orphaned Denali Park moose calf still topic of debate

Sean Doogan
This Denali National Park moose calf was orphaned at a week old after its mother was hot in early June. The calf continues to struggle for survival and has taken residence near housing for park workers. For now, the plan is to try to keep the animal from becoming habituated to people and let nature take its course. Susan Duffy photo

Often, the wild animals that draw thousands of tourists to Denali National Park and Preserve each year, live hard and die young -- but that may not be the case for at least one plucky moose calf. The calf, which authorities say was orphaned at a week old when its mother was shot June 6, has taken up residence near housing for park workers, about 240 miles north of Anchorage along the Parks Highway.

The calf and its twin, which hasn’t been seen in weeks, were the subjects of a search effort in early June, but were nimble enough to avoid being caught by members of the Alaska Moose Federation brought in to rescue, raise, and relocate the animals. The park service believes the other calf has since died.

The remaining calf has been seen eating willow near the employee housing unit -- near the main Denali Visitor Center, where the moose’s mother was shot last month by a man who was not charged after saying he was defending hiking companions. The calf's fate has been hotly debated by local residents, and even park service employees themselves, and was the subject of a Tuesday night meeting in Denali.

With the calf’s proximity to people, and the fact that its situation was caused by human interference, people wanted to know why the park service wasn’t doing anything to move the animal,” said Hannah Ragland, a member of the Denali Citizens Council -- one of the groups that asked the park to allow the animal to be rescued, moved, or relocated.

"It felt like a no-win situation," Ragland said.

Park employees have been trying to "haze" the animal -- yelling, stomping and sometimes throwing rocks near the young ungulate in an effort to get it away from people, with limited success.

But things may be looking up for the now month-old calf, and for the relationship between Denali National Park managers and the people who live nearby.

The calf seems healthy and may, against all odds, survive the loss of its mother, according to the park service.

"It is growing and eating, and has a real chance of making it," said Denali Superintendent Don Striker, who added the best outcome for the moose would be for it to be left alone.

After the Tuesday meeting, many of those calling for action now say they think the park service is doing the right thing in not trying to catch the animal.

"I would say, we got a lot of details about what they (park service staffers) have done and not done with regard to the moose, and for the most part, people are satisfied with their strategy," Ragland said.

One concern: a young and unprotected moose is a prime target for predators such as bears. Bears often stay at a kill site for days, and would pose a very real danger for anyone near the carcass. But, with each passing day, that danger eases, because the moose continues to grow.

The calf's size makes it increasingly difficult to help the animal. It has matured considerably since people last tried to catch it, making a rope or net capture difficult.

"It is up to my ribcage, at its shoulders, and it would be a real rodeo, with kicking, stomping, and a lot of danger if we tried to snare it now," said the park superintendent, who added that  despite its growing size, the moose remains too small to safely tranquilize.

For now, the plan is to try and keep the animal from becoming habituated to people and let nature take its course -- hoping the young moose survives. Even then, its ultimate fate may be grisly.

"Most animals that live in the park don’t have happy endings, they die long, drawn-out, and horrific deaths eaten by predators or (dying) of starvation,” said Ragland.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com