As the snow melts, biologists in interior Alaska tally the number of wildlife killed in winter

The bison frequently spent time in January at Elena Powers south of Delta, looking for something to eat. (Elena Powers/Facebook)

A few weeks ago, Katie Behrens noticed that the female moose that had been hanging around her home near Delta Junction since the start of last winter was getting weaker as she searched her yard every day for something. Something to eat. Its usual fodder was buried under several feet of snow and ice.

“She was trying to eat shrubs and stuff she could reach. It was very thin,” Behrens said. “She couldn’t walk. She was so weak the last week before her death that she couldn’t get up.

The moose died and Behrens covered the carcass with a tarp and a few feet of snow. But last week she got her first whiff of the rotting animal. So she had a friend with a front loader pick up the carcass and bury it in the woods.

“Luckily he moved it before it started to smell too bad,” she said. “He was just starting to mature.”

It’s a problem many in the eastern interior have had to deal with this spring, as the thick blanket of winter snow finally melts, revealing how many moose and bison have starved to death. due to lack of fodder.

“Around town here we had a lot of dead moose cases earlier in the winter. And some of those moose are now showing up as the snow melts,” said Clint Cooper, a wildlife and fisheries biologist in the Delta region.

Cooper said he and other biologists were trying to determine how much of the area’s moose population had died over the winter. He said it looks like more cows and calves than usual didn’t survive. The agency therefore canceled a recent antlerless moose hunt in the area. But he doesn’t think the winter catch will affect this fall’s hunting season.

“Certainly we’ve had higher than normal mortality, from what we’ve seen so far,” he said. “But it doesn’t look so bad.”

Cooper said the local bison population, on the other hand, has definitely been hit hard.

“We have documented 60 bison deaths over the winter that we are aware of,” he said. “And that’s certainly well, well above average.”

That’s about one-fifth of the 300 head of the Delta Bison Herd. Cooper said most of those who died were calves, along with a few yearlings. He says more than a dozen were killed when hit by vehicles because the animals were using roads instead of their usual trails, which were covered in deep snow and ice. But, he said, the herd is generally in good shape, so the fall buffalo hunt is still underway.

“We had a healthy bison population. Always have a healthy bison population,” he said.

Cooper said now that the snow is melting, the bison are heading back to their summer calving grounds to the south, west of Black Rapids.

“They’re definitely on the move,” he said. “I did a flight last week and about half of the bison seen were present on their calving ground, which is along the Delta River.”

Cooper said Wednesday he was still receiving reports of dead bison and moose in the delta area. He said there was little he could do but advise residents to remove the carcasses and bury them somewhere away from human-inhabited areas, including footpaths. Because, he says, all that protein will attract bears and other scavengers.

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Betty K. Park