The Denali highway has snow on the mountain tops. The willowherb has bloomed. There are hunting camps at Amphitheater Pass. It’s officially fall. The only thing missing is wildlife.
There is never a single reason that affects the disappearance of game. One can point to an underlying cause that might be at the forefront, but there are always a variety of factors involved. In the case of the east end of the Denali Highway, unusual snow accumulation is considered to be the defining problem.
The moose population is dismal along the highway. This population has been declining for several years, despite what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game might tell you. Regulations that emphasize roadside hunting have been a major factor. The requirement that was put in place years ago for level I unit 13 caribou hunters to only hunt moose in the same unit has concentrated far too many hunters in an area that can’t stand the pressure. Community hunting regulations have added their burden to an already stressed roadside population. Add a huge amount of snow that came early and stayed late and – the result is obvious.
Caribou were also affected by the snowpack. There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground as cows normally cross the Richardson Road and head to the edge of the Talkeetna Mountains to calve. It undoubtedly made a difference in how and where the animals moved. It is also likely that significant numbers of Nelchina caribou joined the Fortymile caribou herd. The wintering grounds of the two herds intersect. Denali, at least on the east side of the highway, is devoid of caribou. There are so few animals that on opening day the hunters don’t leave until a day after they arrive.
Ptarmigans are another dark spot. The absence of ptarmigan is an enigma. Ptarmigan were weak along the road. The winter population was decent, off-road. The weather was hot and dry when the chicks should have hatched, so brood survival should have been decent. But I haven’t seen a single bird yet while driving between Paxson and Maclaren. There were no birds along the river bars either. Granted, it’s been rainy and cold for the past few weeks, which will keep the birds sheltered, which could be a factor.
Squirrels: Where have all the squirrels in the park gone? The squirrels that my dogs hunt every year around the cabin are gone. There are none along the highway between 29 and 39 miles, which is usually a hot spot. Maybe the torrential downpours at the end drowned them… I know those rains almost got me.
Ducks: Water levels in ponds and lakes are high in scrub. This works well for diving ducks, but puddle ducks have trouble feeding in their usual places. Ducks are quite mobile creatures. Fifty miles is not a stretch for them. Whatever the reason, they are rare in lakes that are usually filled with pintails and ducks.
Anglers should be happy. High, cold water keeps lake trout active. Tangle Lakes should be excellent. Grayling is more difficult to fish in high water conditions due to the amount of mobile food available. The right presentation will yield good results.
The other factor in the lack of game is the one thing we humans have a tiny bit of control over. This controlling factor is regulation. We could go through regulations that could affect the local abundance of various species – but that would only create a major discussion about individual perceptions.
The final step in the solution to regulation is the Alaska Board of Game. I believe that is the weak point. The BOG was created with the idea that in an environment as large and diverse as Alaska, a member of the Southeast Game Board might need input from a Noatak resident before deciding on regulations. on moose that affect this region. So ! Advisory committees are created. Local knowledge. It’s a pretty good concept. Suffice it to say that over the last six cycles of the BOG, input from local councils has either been ignored or changed into unrecognizable regulation. How to change this? Change BOG members more often? Give more power to advisory committees? Take politics out of the process? These suggestions may work, but are only very remote possibilities.
As hunters and outdoorsmen and women, we cannot adjust the weather. Rain, snow and cold are beyond our control. All the regulatory processes we implement are slow fixes at best. An attempt to respond to a climatic event is impossible within the current three-year BOG cycle. It is possible that in high impact game management units along the road network, a shorter advisory cycle may be beneficial. We won’t fix all the management issues, but we may be able to improve the outdoor experience a bit.