As snow melts, Interior Alaska biologists tally number of winter-killed wildlife

Bison near a truck
Bison frequently spent some time in January at Elena Powers’ home south of Delta, foraging for something to eat. (Elena Powers/Facebook)

A few weeks ago, Katie Behrens noticed the cow moose that had been hanging around her house near Delta Junction since early last winter was getting weaker as it scrounged around her yard every day for something to eat. Its usual forage was buried under several feet of snow and ice.

“She was trying to eat shrubs and stuff that she could reach. It was very thin,” said Behrens. “She couldn’t walk. She was so weak the last week before she died, she couldn’t get up.”

The moose died and Behrens covered the carcass with a tarp and a couple of feet of snow. But last week, she got the first whiff of the decaying animal. So she got a friend with a front-end loader to scoop up the carcass and bury it out in the woods.

“Luckily, he moved it before it started to smell too bad,” she said. “It was just starting to get ripe.”

It’s a problem that several locals in the eastern Interior have had to deal with this spring, as the winter’s heavy snowpack finally melts away, revealing how many moose and bison starved to death because of the lack of forage. 

“Around town here, we had a lot of cases of dead moose earlier in the wintertime. And some of those moose now are showing up as the snow melts,” said Delta-area state Fish and Game wildlife biologist Clint Cooper.

Cooper said he and other biologists are trying to figure out how much of the area’s moose population died over the winter. He said it appears that more cows and calves than usual didn’t make it. So the agency canceled a recent antlerless moose hunt in the area. But he doesn’t think the winter kills will affect this fall’s hunting season.

“Definitely, we’ve had some higher-than-normal mortality, from what we’ve seen so far,” he said. “But it doesn’t appear to be that bad.”

Cooper said the local bison population, on the other hand, definitely took a big hit.

“We have documented 60 bison mortalities over the winter that we’re aware of,” he said. “And that’s certainly way, way way above average.”

That’s about a fifth of the 300-head Delta Bison Herd. Cooper said most of those that died were calves, along with a few yearlings. He says more than a dozen were killed when they were hit by vehicles, because the animals were using roads in lieu of their usual trails, which were covered by deep snow and ice. But, he said the herd is overall in good shape so the fall bison hunt is still a go.

“We had a healthy population of bison. Still have a healthy population of bison,” he said.

Cooper said now that the snow is melting, the bison are ranging back to their summer calving areas to the south, off to the west of Black Rapids.

“They’re definitely on the move,” he said. “I did a flight last week and about half the bison observed were present on their calving ground, which is down along the Delta River.”

Cooper said Wednesday he’s still getting reports of dead bison and moose around the Delta area. He said there’s not much he can do but advise residents to remove the carcasses and bury them somewhere far from human-inhabited areas, including trails. Because, he said, all that protein is going to attract bears and other scavengers.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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