Subsistence moose hunting in Haines closed early this season for the first time in about 20 years. Alaska Fish and Game biologists issued an emergency closure for what they say was a combination of reasons.
“I was about 15 feet up in the tree, and when he started walking away, I pulled the trigger,” Hunter Marty Smith decribed taking what turned out to be a moose with a 61-inch rack within the first week of the season.
A lot of other hunters bagged moose within in the first week as well.
“The first week we had 17 animals harvested, which was a little faster than usual,” said Fish and Game assistant area management biologist, Carl Koch. “And then by September 28 we had 23 animals harvested.”
The management goal for the Haines area, Unit 1D, is between 20 and 25 legal bulls. On September 28, there was still more than a week left in the season. But Koch says it wasn’t just the rapid harvest that motivated Fish and Game to issue the emergency closure. It was also the fact that out of the 23 that were taken, only four were spike-fork bulls.
“[Spike-fork moose] are the yearling class animals that you want to recruit into the population so that there’s more bulls around the future to keep the population going,” Koch said.
He says a low number of spike-fork moose can indicate a low survival rate for the younger males. Aside from recruitment worries and the fast hunt, Fish and Game had one additional concern.
“Last year we couldn’t do a survey until March, which is after the antlers fall off the animals. So when you count moose with no antlers, you don’t know how many bulls you have versus how many cows,” Koch said. “And so the bull-to-cow ratio is an important thing we want to know and we had no way of knowing what that was.”
The mild winter also made it more difficult to see moose, because there wasn’t snow to help contrast the animals from an aerial view. Fish and Game estimates the moose population in the Chilkat Valley to be between 250 and 350. They counted 147 in 2014’s survey.
“And so we chose to call it at 23 animals when we had ten days left in the hunt,” Koch said. “That allowed us to give the hunters three and a half more days to get the word out that the hunt was closing on October 1st.”
Only one more moose was harvested, bringing the total to 24. That includes six 50-plus inch, 12 3-brown tine, 4 spike-fork and two sublegal.
Koch says in 2008, the moose harvest reached 30.
“And for the next four years we were under 20,” he said. “So we didn’t meet our management objective for four years after that. So we decided in this case when we saw another fast hunt going on, to be conservative and close the hunt early.”
There were a few unhappy hunters, but Koch says most of them understand and appreciate that the decision will hopefully protect the moose population. For decades, any bull was legal during moose hunting in the Chilkat Valley. The population dropped, and hunting was closed for two years in the early ‘90s. Then, when hunting was allowed again, Fish and Game put antler configuration restrictions in place.
Koch says the last time the Haines moose hunt was closed early was around 1995.
“We want to protect those breeding bulls so that the population can stay healthy and sustainable,” Koch said.
He hopes next year Fish and Game will have more reliable survey data to inform their decisions during hunting season.