Effects of hard winter on area’s fish, game still being assessed

As Homer’s winters go, this past season was a lulu that just seemed to go on forever, with near-freezing temperatures lingering deep into May, well beyond the normal advent of green-up. 

An area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said he won’t be surprised if population surveys of moose show decreased survivability among the ungulates, especially among cows and calves.

“Before green-up, many (cows) were on the brink of starvation. We had several cases of moose dying in May and into June right here in town,” said Thomas McDonough, research biologist and moose expert with the Homer
office of Fish and Game.

Normally, newborns arrive more or less coincident with green-up, allowing near-starving cows to replenish depleted stores of energy necessary for their own survival and making it possible to lactate effectively. 

“Without having that occur at the normal time, there’s more stress for cows, and that’s often transferred to calves,” McDonough said. While newborns continue nursing for months, they begin consuming browse within days of birth. Thus green-up also provides calves with plentiful food.

Moose typically mate and conceive during the last few days of September and the first week of October, and give birth in late May and early June.

“The calving peak down here (on the Southern Peninsula) is the third week in May,” McDonough said.

Temperatures in May were often still in the 30s (degrees Fahrenheit), and at higher elevations, snow continued to fall off and on throughout the remainder of the month. Under such taxing environmental conditions, cow moose physiology can cause mothers in poor condition to delay calving by a few days, but not much longer, McDonough noted. But green-up came well after most mothers were due. Thus, many calves were likely born weeks before easily accessible browse became available, he said.

 “We are trying to assess the effect on the young,” McDonough said. “Even in a healthy population, moose calf survival is pretty low. Half will be dead in the first five or six weeks.”

Factors contributing to the death of calves include lack of food and predation — itself tied to environmental conditions — as well as exhaustion from contending with deep snow, as occurred in the brutal winter of 2011-2012 when the Homer area saw accumulations measurable in meters.

“In last year’s deep snow, calf survival was pretty poor, and that’s to be expected,” McDonough said.

As many did this year because of the late green-up, those animals also likely suffered from low birth weight resulting from environmental stress on their mothers.

Fish biologists are also taking stock of the impact of the late winter temperatures. Sport fish biologist Carol Kerkvliet at the Homer office of Fish & Game said this year’s run of king salmon appears to be running late. Local rivers are too cold and too deep to encourage returning salmon to attempt the swim upstream to spawn. Recent samples collected on the north and south forks of the Anchor River netted pre-spawn steelhead.

“In the past (by this time), they had already spawned and were heading out to sea,” Kerkvliet said.

It is hard to gauge whether the colder-than-normal temperatures will have any lasting effect on salmon and other fishes beyond delaying their journeys up river. Salmon run timing can vary quite a bit from year to year, she said.

“As far as survivability, salmon are adaptable, and early and late timing has occurred throughout the ages.”

Memorial Day weekend, typically party time on the Anchor River, saw few successful anglers as conditions — high, silt-laden water — were not conducive to catching fish.

Commercial fish biologist Ted Otis said early runs in Resurrection Bay and Mikfik Lake across Cook Inlet (where assessments are being conducted presently) appear to show runs are just a bit later than normal.

At Mikfik Lake, “We were going to install a remote monitor, but the lake is still solid, and there are no fish in the saltwater lagoon. It’s still pretty early, and we don’t always see fish this early anyway,” said Otis, earlier this month.

On the other hand, returns at Kodiak are early. 

“Go figure,” Otis said.

“Really, the fish are not too much later than normal,” he said. While they’re not seeing many fish at monitoring stations yet, most of those are positioned in fresh water.

“That doesn’t mean the fish aren’t hanging out at the mouth of the rivers” waiting the proper conditions, he said.