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Limit urban moose risks: Either open a hunt at Anchorage's Kincaid Park or create a new preserve

Craig Medred
A bull moose in Kincaid Park. Locals should have a civil, informed discussion about the intended use of the park and how to best manage it. Stephen Nowers photo

Once more the citizens of Anchorage are talking over and around each other instead of to each other about the issue of wildlife and public safety in the state's largest city.

So let's get one thing straight before this goes any further: 

The safest place in Kincaid Park when a middle-school cross-country race was run on Sept. 24 was the corner where a responsible adult was keeping watch on an aggressive bull moose with a loaded shotgun.

A kid might have run into an aggressive moose and been stomped anywhere else in the park on that day, but that was the one spot where it wasn't going to happen. That the moose charged and was shot and butchered into meat for a charity is now the subject of much discussion.

There are those, like self-professed wildlife expert Bill Sherwonit, claiming the poor moose was killed "because of a series of bad decisions by people who should know better."

Sherwonit can apparently read the minds of moose. "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," he writes.

Restless and stressed

Bull moose during the breeding season are always restless and stressed, but what that will do to their behavior remains anyone's guess. I once watched a bull do battle for a long time with another bull then go lay down and take a nap for more than an hour while three other bulls roamed around the site of the fight. 

Just the other day, I had a bull charge me because it heard a lot of brush breaking while the dog and I were fighting our way through alders on the Hillside. It obviously thought the alders cracking were the sound of another moose. When it discovered a human and a now angrily barking dog, it paid no attention and chased us around for 10 minutes.

This is not unusual moose behavior. It happens in and out of the rut. A whirling dervish of a young moose tried to stomp us on a neighborhood road in the spring. Why? Who the hell knows. Maybe it didn't like what I was wearing that day. 

No one can see inside the mind of a moose.

All of which is why some are of the opinion that there should be a small army of people on hand as moose spotters and race-course rerouters at Kincaid whenever any sort of athletic event is held there. They like to point out that in a race not long before the moose was shot, Anchorage School District academic officer Mike Graham was able to safely reroute an event around a troublesome moose without anyone getting hurt or the moose shot.

Great. 

How does this help any of a number of people who've been stomped by a moose at Kincaid while running, walking or mountain biking over the course of the last two years?

Maybe what we should do is put GPS-satellite tracking collars on the moose at Kincaid, upgrade the cell-phone service there, and make it possible for users of one of the city's most popular recreation areas to track all moose at all times on their smart phones. This would be expensive, but it would clearly make the park safer for people.

On the other hand, we could abandon the millions of dollars of facilities and trails that have now been built at Kincaid, close the park to people, and make it into what Sherwonit and some others seem to want: a nature preserve. 

Or, we could simply have a civil, sensible discussion about how many moose are a reasonable number of moose for Kincaid Park: Five moose per square mile, as is sometimes found in the very best moose habitats in the state? Or one moose per 30 square miles, as found in some marginal habitats? Or something in between? 

Because here's the thing about wildlife, as any wildlife biologist or hunter can tell you, the more concentrated the animals, the more likely it is that you will run into one.

In areas with five moose per square mile, it's not hard to find moose. In areas with one moose for every 30 square miles, it is hard to find them. Kincaid has the highest, or near highest, moose density in the Anchorage Bowl.

And a study done back in 2000 found the Kincaid moose to be the most stressed moose in the city. Not just during the rut. All of the time. Researcher Martha Tomeo, then a graduate student, then a graduate student at Alaska Pacific University, admitted to being a little surprised.

"It's pretty interesting that these levels were so high for urban moose," she told the Anchorage Daily News. "We see moose all the time, and most of the time they seem calm. But the overt behavior doesn't always match what it going on internally."

Inner city moose the least stressed

Even more surprisingly, she said, the least stressed moose in Anchorage were those in the busy, Midtown portion of the city. Maybe it's that the moose living there have adapted better to people. Maybe it's that they feel less stress in the competition for food with so many other moose.

Whatever the case, the limited number of moose in Midtown appear happier than the many moose in Kincaid. 

All of which raises an interesting question: Would it be better for both people and moose if moose numbers were reduced in Kincaid? There were for years archery moose hunts in the park. There is no reason they couldn't be resumed. 

Hunting doesn't solve all moose problems, but it does do a couple things. It tends to make all the animals being hunted more wary of humans. And it tends to remove the most aggressive animals. The bull that was shot in Kincaid in September would have been an easy target for a bow hunter.

From the sound of things, a couple grunts on a moose call and a hunter would have had that moose in his or her lap. The only question then is: Who gets the meat? As state hunting regulations now work, the meat goes to the hunter, which means any archer lucky enough to draw a permit would stand to get a freezer full if moose hunting was again allowed in the park. 

The alternative to this, of course, is to allow some hunting with shotguns by either trained government officials or state-certified hunters with the meat then going to charity. Shotgun hunts are decidedly more efficient that bow hunts. And despite all those people worrying about the danger of "stray bullets'' in the wake of the recent moose shooting, the dangers of someone being hit by a stray slug are extremely low.

Not to mention that the park has gates. It would be easy enough to generally close it on days hunting was allowed. 

Or everyone could just allow things to go on the way they are going on. The moose are a danger, but no one has been killed in the park yet. Wildlife attacks, even those by grizzly bears, cause far more injuries than deaths. 

It's possible the status quo could continue for decades with any number of annual injuries and no fatalities. Then again, some kid running or skiing on the Kincaid trails could be stomped and killed tomorrow. 

Then what? The Sherwonits of the world can explain to us how it wasn't the animals' fault, and kids just need to show better judgment? This argument gets old.

Flaw of 'better judgment'

The "better judgment" thing when applied to wildlife encounters is badly flawed because in any encounter between animals and humans there are two mammals making judgments -- one is human, one is wild. A human can make the best judgments in the world and still end up in trouble.

Take it from someone who shot a grizzly off his leg. I didn't want to shoot the bear and made the judgment that the charge was a bluff. I'd been bluff-charged many times before. I was pretty confident that if I held my ground the bear would stop, turn around and beat it out of there. 

She didn't. She ran over me and clawed me in the face. Then she grabbed my leg. If she'd just run over me, she would have been fine. But in her second display of bad judgment, she put herself in a position where it seemed the only logical thing for me to do was shoot her. I didn't want to do that.

I like to be friends with the animals, too. It's just, unlike Sherwonit, I set some limits on those friendships because animals can be dangerous. I know if I were a parent with a kid regularly using Kincaid, I'd want moose numbers there reduced. 

But my kid is now an adult runner fully knowledgeable in how to deal with wildlife. I have little concern about her getting stomped while running at Kincaid or elsewhere. So I really don't care about what happens at the park. 

I don't run there. I don't ski there much in the winter either. I actually wouldn't mind much if the park was shut down and rechristened the Bill Sherwonit Nature Preserve. But before doing that, maybe the citizens of Anchorage should have a civil, informed discussion about the intended use of the park and how to best manage it. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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.