Tribal Profiles
Alaska - Athabascan Region


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Moose

Many rural Alaskans depend on moose meat for sustenance. Before the government enacted hunting regulations, a family could hunt a moose when the freezer was empty and share it with the community. Today this is not the case. The restriction on hunting and the ecological changes in the environment due to climate change impact traditional ways of life practiced by the people of interior Alaska.

Finding a moose is harder today, requiring hunters to stay out longer. Traditional hunting locations are less predictable, due in part to climate-related changes in the environment. Another reason for the apparent scarcity of moose includes higher predation (by humans, bears, and wolves), possibly the result in a reduction in trapping practices by rural residents.

Previously unusual conditions in moose are becoming more common. Unhealthy moose in the interior are found more frequently, including those with parasite infestations, worms in the guts, puss in the muscles, and brittle bones. Moose are not growing as large as before; for example, a bull moose used to have 50+ inch antlers, but now moose of the same age might average 45-inch antlers. Further, calves are born later in the season, and in general many seasonal events come later, including fishing and freeze-up.

The warming climate also impacts hunting strategies. Warmer moose-hunting seasons create urgency when butchering and packing up a moose, as the meat begins to rot more quickly. Warmer weather prevents hunters from going out, creating a shorter hunting season.

Failing to get a moose can be emotionally challenge for some individuals. When 'failure' happens, such as not getting a moose before the end of the official hunting season, they may become grief-stricken. This sense of failure and sadness can be partly alleviated through the generous sharing of moose meat by others. Thus, a new form of bond might be developing in part as a result of new demands brought on by climate change.




Reasons for not finding a moose
  • More brush creates visual impairments. Leaves staying on the trees later in the fall creates a camouflage effect.

  • Moose go to different wetlands when the areas they normally inhabit dry up.

  • Low water levels virtually impact all aspects of hunting. Access to lakes, rivers, and sloughs affect hunters' abilities for a successful hunt. Primary hunting areas are becoming obsolete.

  • Regulations restrict the hunting season to a certain number of days; sometimes those may be the days you are not lucky.


Adaptation
  • Fish, bear, hares, ducks, geese and ptarmigan can fill the void if a moose hunt is unsuccessful. Also, sharing is a cultural value-people share their moose meat with others.

  • Wild berries fulfill needs, not only nutritional, but also mental as tending to and relying on the land is an important aspect of life.

  • If necessary, hunting illegally during the off-season must become an option.

  • Hunting in different areas for moose and utilizing new technologies such as GPS units in order not to get lost.

  • Using canoes to get into difficult places due to the low water in lakes, rivers, and sloughs.


"Everything is Drying Up" - observed changes in environmental conditions
  • Winter ice is thinner and narrower than it used to be. People cannot hunt geese in the spring as they had previously. Also, lakes and rivers overflow because the winters are too warm.

  • Less water causes spruce trees along the river to die.

  • Water lakes are turning into grass lakes.

  • Snowmobile trails and roads are sinking, making it difficult to travel to places that were once easily accessible.

  • Rains in January and February, once unheard of, now happen in the interior.

  • River banks are eroding.

  • Species, such as trout, that used to be uncommon now make up half of a catch.

  • There aren't as many ducks as there once were.




Fort Yukon Polar Bear
According to biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the answer to "why the polar bear crossed the Brooks Range" is as clear as mud. Polar bears typically do not stray far from their saltwater ecosystem. However, in March of 2008 an individual was shot dead in Fort Yukon, Alaska, 250 miles from her Beaufort Sea habitat. That this happened in March, a foraging time for this northern marine mammal that preys on seals, makes the incident much more unusual.

Climate change may indeed be a piece of this puzzle. As the climate and ecosystems of the north change, so do the behaviors of living organisms. Is this a bear that is adapting to the changing environment? Polar bears, being bad terrestrial hunters, will need to find a new way to exist as the amount of sea ice decreases. Human beings may have to adapt along with the bears and realize this may become a frequent occurrence.

According to natural history, polar bears originally descended from brown bears. This species started moving north and so began to evolve a different shape of snout, hair color, as well as different hunting strategies in order to adapt to its new habitat. Perhaps one day this species will come again to where it began, completing its circular life history.

Sources:
Marine Mammals Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear website.
Accessed on March 31, 2008:
http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/polarbear/pbmain.htm

Mowry, Tim. March 28, 2008. Fairbanks Daily News Miner: Why did the polar bear cross the Brooks Range? Biologists are baffled.





©2002 Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals & Northern Arizona University
Last updated: October 26, 2012