November 14, 2013 | Vol. 39, No. 46

Biologist tracks moose populations in Southeast

Kevin Colson, Wildlife Biologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gave a presentation in the public library conference room Tuesday night about moose populations and their long journey to Southeast Alaska.

To help tell the story, Colson for the past year and a half has worked with Petersburg high school teacher Joni Johnson and her science students as they collect and catalogue moose DNA samples.

Before moose made their way to Southeast, a very recent occurrence that didn’t happen until the early 1900s, they lived in the boreal forests of Asia.

“Modern moose, like pretty much every deer species, if you follow it back long enough you find they have something in common with Asia,” Colson said. “During the last ice age there were no moose in Alaska.”

But as the ice age drew to a close habitats changed and the moose changed with it. Colson said bones are found in Alaska and the Yukon dated around 12,000 years ago long after humans began staking a claim.

In fact, the Yupik language had no word for moose. Colson said the current word, ‘tuntuvak’ means, loosely, big caribou.

“They had a word for caribou but they didn’t have a word for moose and that’s pretty suggestive.”

But as the ice age ended moose from Asia followed the retreating ice sheets in North America. As the glaciers tore through the land they allowed willows and shrubs to thrive along with the moose, which were feasting on the new growth.

And it wasn’t until recently that moose moved from Eastern to Western British Columbia.

“Moose are new to Southeast Alaska,” Colson said. “Really new.”

Colson said according to diary records from folks like miners and lumberjacks during the time, they began spotting moose around 1910, which is when the first moose around the lower Stikine River was seen.

Around 20 years later colonization really began to take off in Haines and moose started to appear in Thomas Bay.

Colson is now trying to track moose populations in Southeast to tell a more complete story about where they came from. Populations interbreed and distant relatives can be traced back over a long time span. Colson said you can figure out where populations will end and where they began.

“Just like here (Petersburg) there are a lot of people with Norwegian descent so you have some relation back to Norway,” Colson said. “You have the same things with animal populations. British Colombia might colonize Haines. British Columbia will be pretty related to Haines.”

Colson said the moose story is far from over here in Southeast and the animals are still colonizing areas and changing their range.

He said three species of moose live in North America. Tundra Moose, the biggest type, live further north and in the interior. The smaller Western Moose are found around Southeast and the smallest Shiras Moose live in the Rocky Mountains.

Alaska brings in around $4 million dollars from tourists who want to see the animals and around $40 million from meat.

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