Three moose in the Chilkat Valley photographed during the 2016 survey. (Carl Koch)

Three moose in the Chilkat Valley photographed during the 2016 survey. (Carl Koch)

In an aerial survey of the Chilkat Valley this week, biologists counted 221 moose. That’s the highest number seen in the area in the last 10 years. The strong numbers are reassuring, but don’t necessarily indicate a dramatic spike in the population.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Carl Koch flew from Juneau to Haines Tuesday morning. Then, he boarded a Super Cub plane and started the annual count of Chilkat Valley moose.

“We fly at about 500-foot elevation and it’s a Super Cub so we can go nice and slow,” Koch said. “We start in the lower valley, kind of the Murphy Flats area and we go up pretty much all of the drainages all the way up to top of the Chilkat [River] above Turtle Rock where we turn around and come back down.”

The survey took about six hours.

“It’s one of my favorite parts of the job. It’s a lot more fun to be out seeing the country that you manage and critters that are out there…it definitely beats looking at a computer screen.”

The experience was made even better by the promising number of moose Koch counted: 221. That’s the largest number in the past 10 years. It included 148 cows, 41 bulls, and 32 calves.

Koch said the bull-to-cow ratio of 28:100 is right above the management objective. And the amount of calves – 14 percent – is in line with the long-term average of 15 percent.

The numbers are strong, but Koch isn’t jumping to any conclusions because aerial surveys only provide part of the picture.

“I think probably there are a few more moose. It’s just hard to tell. If we had [GPS] collared moose, we’d be able to tell if we saw 70 percent or 80 percent of the moose. In good conditions you typically see 65 to 70 percent of the moose.”

One factor contributing to the high number might just be that Koch was able to see more because of better weather conditions. He said the conditions were close to perfect this year. That was not the case the previous two years. The 2014 and 2015 surveys were also limited because weather prevented them from happening until most bull moose had dropped their antlers – making it impossible to distinguish between males and females.

Last year, Koch counted 183 moose, the year before, 147. After this winter’s count, the second highest number in the past 10 years was in 2011, when 212 animals were spotted.

Koch said if the population has increased, the recent mild winters may have played a part.

“When the winters are milder, the survival is usually higher.”

Moose living in very optimal conditions tend to have more twin calves. Koch said that’s not something he saw this survey. He only spotted one set of twins.

“Something I’d love to see would be even more calves.”

The unchanging percentage of calves and the fact that this is just one year’s worth of data mean Koch is not planning to adjust restrictions on the area moose hunt.

“I think at this point, we’re gonna stick with the status quo, but certainly we’d be less concerned with over-harvest than we were a couple years ago.”

The hunt has gone unusually fast the past two years. In 2015, Fish and Game closed the harvest early, after about two weeks. It was even more dramatic this September, when the hunt closed after just one week. The management goal for the Chilkat Valley moose harvest is between 20 and 25 legal bulls, which are based on antler configurations. A total of 26 were taken this year, two of which were illegal.

Koch said this week’s survey numbers are encouraging, but it’s too soon to tell what might have caused the increase and whether it might last.