On Tuesday, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists will be out in the field doing a browse survey, trying to measure how much vegetation is being eaten by moose. They compare the growth of willow to the amount eaten to get an idea if there is enough, too much, or room for more moose in the habitat.
Wildlife Biologist Phillip Perry says that this year's early spring means that the department is in a race with time to get the data.
“Obviously there is no snow, and many times we have to use snow shoes to do it, and obviously we’re kind of racing the green-up. We’d like to do it before new growth of the year, and most years, this time of year we’re not racing green-up.”
It was also hard to get the data on moose populations this past winter. For one thing, there was very little snow cover.
“On top of that we had, the month of February and March, we had very poor flying conditions,” said Perry. “So we didn’t get any moose population estimates, which is unfortunate. That’s how we set quotas and manage moose populations.”
The good news is that moose populations in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are considered healthy. But how healthy? That is something that may also be more difficult for scientists to document.
Here's an interesting twist: biologists can get an estimate of reproductive success by counting the number of twin calves they see. A higher proportion of twins being born means that the mothers are getting what they need and doing very well. Perry says that an early spring will make it harder to survey the moose calves this year.
“Moose calves are fairly reddish looking. In dry vegetation and stuff that’s been packed down by snow and no leaves they’re not that hard to find, but with leaves on trees it’s going to probably be difficult this year to do that,” Perry said.
There is a trend going back about 20 years in which Perry says that biologists have encountered increasingly difficult moose survey conditions, especially during winters without good snow cover.
“If this is the new normal, then it’s unfortunate for us,” said Perry. “It just becomes more difficult to do some of the things we’d like to do.”
It is not impossible to get the data for good moose population numbers in the Y-K Delta, Perry says, it just takes longer.