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The problem isn’t agitated moose, it’s people showing bad judgment

Bill Sherwonit
OPINION: You’d think that responsible adults who live in Anchorage would know that sending children to run along trails near bull moose during the peak of the rutting season is dangerous. You'd be wrong. Loren Holmes photo

I read Val Van Brocklyn’s opinion piece in last Saturday’s Anchorage Daily News with great interest and found myself agreeing with her analysis and conclusions, as presented in her commentary, “Adults should have used common sense rather than shotgun at Kincaid.” As Van Brocklyn says, if the original news story (“Aggressive moose shot near middle-school race at Kincaid Park”) was accurately reported, organizers of the Sept. 24 middle-school cross-country races at Kincaid Park made some stunningly bad -- and regrettable -- decisions that led to the killing of a bull moose.

You’d think that responsible adults who live in Anchorage would know that running along trails that take them near bull moose during the peak of the rutting season is a dangerous thing. To send large numbers of middle school kids past a bull that had been staying on or near the race route and which already had been “guided” off the trail and into the woods, where the animal (almost certainly agitated by now) remained within 15 yards of the path, was irresponsible. And it led to the unnecessary death of a moose that had to be shot when it charged a group of girls competing in the race. Beyond that, it put a group of middle-schoolers at great and needless risk. As one witness to the event, teacher Paul Brown, later commented, only the presence of an armed bystander “probably saved a child from death or injury.”

Given the circumstances, who wouldn’t agree that shooting the bull to protect the girls was an “absolutely” necessary thing, as parent Andy Duenow told reporter Beth Bragg. Thank goodness Anchorage policeman and Goldenview Middle School resource officer Jared McKay grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun from his vehicle; but tellingly, he only did so after learning that moose near the trails had been acting aggressively.

Which of course raises the question: If moose are acting aggressively enough that a police officer arms himself with a shotgun, why the heck were children allowed to run past those moose in the first place?

Though some who were present suggested that the bull didn’t appear stressed until it suddenly charged, Scott Grunn wrote this online comment in response to Van Brocklin’s commentary: “I watched that [bull] moose and three others for over an hour; that one in particular did appear dangerous.... Several people tried to drive the moose away using the usual tactics: hitting sticks against trees, calling out with raised voices, and standing and waiting in groups within the moose’s view. When finally the moose lay down, I know I breathed a sigh of relief.”

What’s shocking here is that people didn’t recognize -- or care -- that their actions would likely add to any distress the moose was experiencing.

And Duenow, the parent, told reporter Bragg, “And then the varsity girls started and we were all excited, because all (the moose) has to do is lay there for another twenty minutes and we’re home free.”

In other words, parents, teachers, race officials, and at least one police officer were hoping, gambling, that the bull would stay put, when all the evidence suggested it was already restless and stressed.

All of this makes clear that a “problem” moose was killed because of a series of bad decisions by people who should know better. To those of us who believe that the presence of wildlife -- including potentially dangerous animals like moose and bears -- enhance and enliven our city lives, the shooting of this moose is simply one more example of so-called wildlife problems being caused by some combination of human ignorance, stubbornness and recklessness -- and the attitude, shown by at least some Anchorage residents, that wild animals simply don’t belong here. And if they inconvenience -- or remotely endanger -- our lives, best get rid of them.

This leads to another question: What message are youngsters supposed to take away from the killing of that bull? I hope someone makes it clear to Anchorage students that people -- adults -- screwed up badly that day.

(While on the subject of poor judgment, I might add that Daily News editors showed bad taste by their choice of a front-page picture to accompany the original news story: a smiling 13-year-old boy posed beside the dead moose. Yikes! And what sort of message was that supposed to send?)

The good news is that the organizers of, and participants in, that same day’s Tuesday Night Race Series event showed much better judgment. As race director Margaret Timmerman noted, “We’re always concerned about moose encounters, about bear encounters. At the beginning of each event we talk about being aware -- be aware of your surroundings, be aware of moose, be aware there are bear out.”

That awareness, perhaps combined with an extra dose of caution in the wake of the earlier moose charge and shooting, prompted participants in the Tuesday night race’s Munchkin Division -- presumably parents as well as little kids — to do the right thing upon encountering a moose. According to Timmerman, “They stopped running, waited for the moose to move away, and kept on running.”

Then, at Saturday’s Cook Inlet Conference cross country championship races at Kincaid, Anchorage School District administrator Michael Graham (himself a former cross country champion and the father of a racer) got runners participating in the girls’ varsity race to veer off the main course onto a secondary trail, in order to avoid an agitated bull. It should be emphasized that this was a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision, apparently in response to the bull’s sudden appearance nearby. It was, of course, a wise one. But it shows the continued challenge of holding large races through the heart of moose country during the rutting season.

My hope is that recent events will stir additional conversations, both with the school district and other groups that organize races in places where participants are likely to encounter moose or bears. It’s always best to avoid situations where people, and particularly children, are needlessly put in harm’s way, requiring heroic actions and the regrettable killings of animals that were, after all, simply leading their own lives until we humans interrupted them.

Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" and "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness," the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wildlife politics since the mid-1980s.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.