Snow falls on the mountaintops on Denali Highway. Fireweed has flourished. There are hunting camps on Amphitheater Pass. It’s officially fall. The only thing missing is the wildlife.
There is no single cause that affects the disappearance of game animals. One can point to an underlying cause that may be at the fore, but there is always a variety of factors involved. In the case of the eastern end of Denali Highway, the unusual mass of snow is the critical issue.
Moose gloomy residents along the highway. This population has been in decline for several years, despite what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may tell you. Regulations emphasizing roadside fishing was a major factor. The requirement that was put in place years ago that required antlers of Unit 13 of the first level to only hunt deer in the same unit has concentrated many hunters in an area that cannot withstand the pressure. Community stalking regulations added their burden to already stressed roadside residents. Add a massive amount of snow that came early and stayed late – and the result is obvious.
Caribou were also affected by the snowfall. There was still gentle snow falling on the ground at the time when the cows usually moved up the Richardson Highway and trekked to the edge of the Talkeetna Mountains to breed. It undoubtedly made a difference in how and where the animals moved. It is also possible that a large number of Nelchina ibex joined the Fortymile herd. The winter range of both flocks intersects. Denali, at least on the east side of the highway, is devoid of caribou. There are very few animals that poachers leave on opening day just a day after they arrive.
Ptarmigan is another bleak spot. The lack of a ptarmigan is an enigma. Spring was weak with Tarmigan along the highway. Winter residents were fit off-road. The weather was warm and dry when the chicks were supposed to hatch, so brood survival had to be good. But I have yet to see a single bird while driving between Paxson and McLaren. And there were no birds along the river bars. It has certainly been rainy and cold for the past several weeks, which will keep the birds under cover, which may be a factor.
Squirrels: Where have all the garden squirrels gone? Gone are the squirrels my dogs chase around the cabin every year. There are none along the highway between 29 miles and 39 miles, which is usually a hot spot. They may have been drenched by a torrential downpour lately…I know those rains almost drowned me.
Ducks: Water levels in ponds and lakes are high in brush. This suits diving ducks well, but pond ducks find it difficult to feed in their usual places. Ducks are beautiful animated creatures. Fifty miles is not an extension of them. Whatever the reason, they are rare in lakes that are usually full of cubes and widgeon.
Hunters should be happy. The cool, high water keeps the lake trout active. Interlocking lakes should be excellent. Grayling is tougher in fish under higher water conditions due to the amount of mobile feed available. Correct presentation will bring good results.
The other factor in the lack of game is the one thing we humans have little control over. This control factor is the regulations. We could go through regulations that might affect the local abundance of different species – but this would only create a great discussion of individual perceptions.
The final solution step for regulation is the Alaska Board of Games. I think herein lies the weak point. BOG was created with the idea that in an environment as remote and diverse as Alaska, a game board member from the Southeast might need some input from a Noatak resident before making a decision about moose regulations affecting that area. there he is! Advisory committees came into being. local knowledge. This is a pretty good concept suffice to say, over the past half a dozen BOG cycles, local advisory input has been ignored or modified to an unrecognizable slate. How can we change that? BOG members change often? Giving advisory committees more powers? Take politics out of the process? These suggestions may work, but they are just very remote possibilities.
As hunters, outdoor men and women, we can’t fix the weather. Rain, snow and hail are all beyond our control. Any regulation we implement is slow fixes at best. Attempting to respond to a climate event is impossible given the current three-year BOG cycle. Possibly, in high-impact game management modules along the highway system, a shorter board cycle may be beneficial. We won’t solve all issues with management, but we might be able to make the outside experience a little better.