2020 hunting scorecard for Alaska’s Interior: Nelchina caribou are elusive, Unit 13B moose are scarce

Moose season has passed. My impression is that the success rate, at least along the northern highway system, was lower than normal.

I saw a few moose racks here and there while I was traveling the Richardson Highway, but when considering the number of hunters, it wasn’t much. The word from the Nabesna area was much the same.

Caribou reports were different. The Forty-mile herd was along both the Steese and the Elliott Highways. Hunter success was good and the hunts achieved the harvest quotas in a short time.

The Nelchina hunt is working out quite differently. The herd is nowhere near the road system. Caribou are being taken here and there, but not in numbers.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game extended the early season for 10 days in an effort to increase harvest. It does not look promising. Last year the herd moved in a rush, crossing the Richardson Highway during the three-week October closure. Given the inclement weather, the same scenario could play out this season as well.

Ptarmigan and waterfowl have also been a bust along the Denali Highway and the Richardson.

A few birds were taken along the roads. Rain made for tough hunting conditions. A good dog was a necessity.

The ptarmigan chicks were small, due to a failed first hatch. The rain that was hard on the first chicks has continued and has also affected the second brood. There were birds along the Denali Highway early in the season, but those seem to have been shot out by excessive numbers of hunters.

There are still plenty of cranes migrating through Delta Junction. Some fields have standing oats, and that will hold birds awhile longer. Waterfowlers who have hunted Delta for a number of years tell me there are fewer cranes than last year. That may be the case, though I can’t verify it.

Sharp-tailed grouse and spruce grouse must have had a poor hatch also. The few I have seen are pairs and singles. The area around Sourdough is normally good for spruce chickens, but not this season. Late September is when these birds switch their diet from berries to spruce needles, and they are not so tasty by the last week of the month.

Sharptails are tough to find in the Delta Junction area. I have heard reports of a few on the edges of the Delta barley fields, though not enough to reliably hunt. A five-mile hike with a dog last week only jumped a single bird.

The game animals we normally focus on all seem to be light in the area around the Alaska Range. It could be due to last winter’s heavy snowfall and corresponding late spring. Or the growing number of hunters over the past years may be having an effect, especially on moose near the road systems.

The caribou herd is in decent shape, according to Fish and Game, they are just not very accessible thus far this season. How calving went, due to the late snowmelt is yet to be determined.

Moose are a different story.

The moose in Unit 13B were undoubtedly hit hard by the heavy snows south of the Alaska Range. Add that to the heavy pressures coming off of the Denali and Richardson highways and the result is few available moose in many popular hunting areas.

The moose in Units 13A and 13E are in good shape.

Unit 13E can be accessed from the west end of the Denali Highway and the Parks Highway north of Talkeetna. Unit 13A is reached mostly from the Eureka area. There were tons (and tons …) of ATVs utilizing trails originating in both locales this season.

Areas farther from the highway system are tougher to get to. A late cow season could allow for snowmobile access.

The solution for hard-hit areas of Unit 13B is going to be tough. The ATV hunters don’t want restrictions of any kind, but some measures are necessary. Tying the caribou permits to a moose hunt in the area was a bad idea that seems very difficult to get rid of.

Many hunters looking to utilize a limited resource is an ongoing issue. Solutions are never perfect and require significant compromise if we, as hunters, expect concrete results. Restrictive regulations may be needed, but are not going to be popular.

Over the years I have seen that hunters restrict themselves. If there are no animals to be had where they usually hunt, they go elsewhere.

Two things have changed that tendency in Unit 13B: the structure of the Nelchina caribou hunt and COVID-19. COVID restrictions have made everyone want to escape to the outback, and the caribou hunt structure has sent them all to 13B. It would be nice if we could change both.

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