In southwest Alaska, where there is a mixture of tundra, mountains, forests, and cross-river terrain, there has been a rapid shift in wildlife.
In Togiak National Wildlife Refuge specifically, the moose population has increased a whopping 400 times since the early 1990s, from just a handful a few decades ago to about 2,000 animals now.
The reason seems obvious: climate change. Milder winters and greater vegetation are directly linked to the moose population boom, according to ongoing research by Sebastian Zavoico, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The strongest part of this trend appears to be in the areas crossed by the river on the western side of the refuge, where woody shrubs have spread out in areas where the tundra was most prevalent, said Zavoico, who used mathematical analysis to compare climate and weather. Vegetation changes as the moose population changes.
Zavoiko said Moss Tojiak’s changes are part of a global pattern. “We know that species are changing their distribution around the world,” he said. “It definitely fits the mold, that’s for sure.”
“Tundra be long lasting”
In Alaska, changing populations include moose and snowshoe hares moving north into an area that used to be strict tundra but now has woody vegetation, such as the North Slope. It also includes beavers, which have become established in some Arctic regions where they were rare only a few decades ago. Not only do beavers take advantage of new shrub conditions, but by engineering their dams and lodges, they are accelerating permafrost thawing and other environmental changes, as shown in a UAF-led study aptly titled: “Tundra Be Dammed: Beaver Colonization of the Arctic.”
While the changes were good for some species, including the moose at the Togiak Refuge, it meant trouble for others. Among the most notorious losers in this transformation are the caribou, which depends on tundra plants such as lichens and mosses.
Scientists working in West Greenland, for example, have found a “nutritional mismatch” that is harmful to the survival of the caribou calf. The scientists found that plants started to emerge earlier, thanks to higher temperatures, but the daylight-regulated natal season did not change accordingly, meaning animals lose out on their most nutritious greenery when they need it most.
As in some other areas, caribou and moose trends traveled in opposite directions around Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Andy Aderman, a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who works at Togyak National Wildlife Refuge, said the area’s Molchatna Caribou herd, which numbered about 200,000 in the late 1990s, is now down to about 12,850. The population decline has led to a closure Emergency fishing last year.
For people who have traditionally relied on caribou, Aderman said, switching to moose hunting makes sense. He said: “The need does not go away.”
In sharp contrast to the situation with caribou, the moose hunting seasons in the area are liberal and favorable to the moose population. There is even concern about deer populations increasing too quickly, devouring vegetation and exhausting the carrying capacity of the area. “One thing we would like not to see is deer hunger,” Aderman said.
Around Alaska and the wider Arctic, the rapidly changing climate sometimes caused out of sync with the hunting and fishing seasons. Sometimes the organizational calendar, which can be difficult to adjust, loses the changing access of fish and the objective game of hunting and fishing rules. Sometimes the specific seasons do not match the conditions for safe travel across the tundra, snow or ice. Sometimes, hunting practices adapt.
In Kotzebue, for example, subsistence fishermen deal with a compressed season in order to hunt in the spring for bearded seals. The ice on which the seals settled is disappearing early, so fishermen make frequent boat trips over a shorter period of time, a change detailed in recently published research.
While seal-hunting success rates have been maintained, locals are not having success with the beavers that breed in the Kotzebue area, said Alex Whiting, an environmental specialist in the original Kotzebue village.
In general, catching a beaver is a lot of work for little reward, as “beaver meat and laying is the most labor-intensive, especially for beginners,” Whiting said via email, referring to the fur-bearing animals in the area. .
Fur prices are low in commercial markets, Whiting said by email, and furs from animals such as sea otters are generally preferred. Harvesting beavers, he said, “is more complicated than trapping than most markers, because most signage is underwater and trap locations are covered in ice and snow,” and working on ice can be unsafe.
Around the Togiak Refuge, the switch from caribou hunting to deer hunting wasn’t always easy either. “I think some people prefer caribou over flavor,” Aderman said. He added that single moose generally weigh about 120 pounds more than a single caribou, which means some logistical challenges for hunters. “One person can handle the caribou himself,” he said.
Both people and bears adapt
While people are acclimating, so apparently bears. They famously rely on the region’s rich salmon trails, but they also learn to prey on young moose calves that are available every spring.
Aderman said he even saw the bears lying nearby as the pregnant cow was laying on the bed and preparing to give birth.
In recent years, Zavoico said, the staggering rate of calf survival in the area has declined, potentially a sign of bear predation. “It seems the story I heard is that the bears are starting to take advantage of this new resource that they didn’t have before,” he said.