The 49th state’s long run of what some thought might be the new normal of global warming is over. The old normal is back with snow and cold, and there are indications that moose in the sprawling Susitna Valley north of Anchorage might be paying the price.
Up and down the Yentna River, backcountry residents and travelers on the local snowmobile trails have reported finding the carcasses of moose already dead and living moose that look on the verge of death from starvation.
“We have had three die in the past two weeks within a mile of us,” Eric Johnson messaged from the Northwoods Lodge about 65 miles northwest of Anchorage. “All were yearlings that had been abandoned by a cow. Way too early in the year to be abandoned. Never seen anything like it in 35 years, especially on a low snow year.”
Gino del Frate, the regional wildlife supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said biologists have yet to began examining the die off, but starvation would appear the most likely explanation.
“Winter kill” – animals dead from a combination of starvation and exposure due to a lack of fat reserves and/or calories to maintain body heat – is a common phenomenon in the state. And the coldest winter in several years seems to be taking a toll on moose region wide.
The Alaska Moose Federation was this week offering urban Alaskans help dealing with the problem.
“Dead moose in your yard?” the organization’s Facebook page said. “Winter kill moose pickup available.”
Some die off is to be expected after a couple of winters of unusually mild weather that has allowed moose to flourish. From October 2015 through November 2016, the state experienced a record string of 14 months with temperatures above normal.
“Is This Alaska’s Weirdest Winter,” The Weather Channel asked a year ago.
“The long term weather pattern across western North America has kept Alaska relatively warm during the winter months for more than three years,” it reported. “While not nearly as snowless as the 2014-15 winter, temperatures (for 2015-16) were even warmer.”
Only 2.5 inches of snow fell in Fairbanks from December to February of last year, a fraction of the 50-inch norm. Anchorage was snow free for the first time ever in February 2015-2016 when temperatures soared into the 40s – 20 degrees above average.
For moose, it was great. For two years, there was almost no winter kill.
And now, with a string of three going on four months with enough snow to make moving around a little more difficult and temperatures below normal?
Nature is harsh
“It’s a real winter,” del Frate said. “We have been seeing some animals tip over. It’s supposed to start getting warmer, but winter won’t let go.”
Johnson said the temperature at Northwoods on Friday morning was a chilly 11 degrees. The spring sun was bright and warm, but the thermometer barely crept above freezing in the afternoon.
Anchorage weather has been running about 8 to 10 degrees below normal all month, according to National Weather Service data. In an average year, the daily high hits the freeze-thaw point on March 7. It didn’t hit 32 degrees until March 20 this year, and then the temperature quickly dropped back down.
Thursday’s high of 31 degrees was five degrees below normal. The overnight low of eight degrees was 13 degrees below normal.
It’s not a good time to be a moose in Alaska.
“Browse is chewed up,” del Frate said. “Moose numbers are pretty high.”
The weather is cold, which requires more energy to provide body heat. Green-up is more than a month away. The mooses’ fat reserves, which they depend on for survival in even a mild winter, are going or gone.
A couple of weeks ago, state wildlife biologist Tim Peltier was out in the Susitna Valley capturing and radio-collaring moose for a study underway there, Del Frate said, and “they were seeing some moose that weren’t in very good shape.”
Even in the best of winters, notes “Ecology and Management of the North American Moose,” moose are in a slow, but steady state of starvation with their body fat reserves constantly falling.
Because of generally lower body fat at the start of winter, it also notes, “calves, older adults (8 years and older) and adult males probably could tolerate less nutritional stress than other classes of moose.”
The moose Johnson has seen die around the Northwoods would fit in that class.
Tough to watch
“Appears to be starvation as most are quite thin and small for their age but not all,” Johnson said. “We only have about two feet of snow but it appears that the cows are abandoning the calves way early. Another factor?”
Del Frate said Peltier, who has studies ongoing in the area, plans to take a look at the general health of the animals. The issue could be something other than winter kill, but disease outbreaks in Alaska moose are rare.
Starvation could be tied to that “real winter” Del Frate mentioned or linked to a deterioration in food quality over the course of last year’s warm, dry summer. All that’s really known now is that moose are visibly dying.
“I passed another one yesterday morning outside of Fish Lakes Creek,” messaged Roger Phillips, who lives in Skwentna and hauls freight by snowmachine up the Yentna River. “It looked like a two year old, laying in the middle of the trail and didn’t even get up. Looked like it was gonna die, head hung down and glassy eyes looking at me.”
Snowfall in the Susitna Basin on the south side of the Alaska Range is at about 80 percent of normal this year, according to the National Weather and Climate Center. As Johnson notes, the winter hasn’t seemed that harsh, but these things are relative.
Compared to the last couple, Seattle-like winters, this one has been very cold and very snowy. Compared to some of the winters early in the decade, two feet of snow on the ground is nothing.
Anchorage set an all-time record for snow not all at that long ago. In the winter of 2011-2012 , 134.5 inches fell. That’s more than 11 feet, enough to bury a basketball rim a foot under. It was enough snow to make national news.
The Washington Post called it “Alaska’s cruel winter,” and reported “stormy (snowy) weather has plagued the Last Frontier since the cold season began in October.”
Moose everywhere struggled to survive. Only a few years later, they were flourishing thanks to a string of mild winters. Now the circle has turned again. This is the way life works in the wild.
Be thankful you’re human.