- Ungulates comprise some of the most well researched and intensely managed wildlife populations on earth. As such, they are recognized as ideal study subjects for developing and modifying management tools or theories (Danell et al. 1994, Shipley 2010). An introduced moose (Alces alces gigas) population on the Copper River Delta (CRD; Delta) of south-central Alaska functions as a valuable resource for the residents of Cordova and an isolated research population on which to test managerial techniques. Since its introduction (1949-1958), the founding population of 23 moose has grown to over 830 in 2013, divided into two sub-populations. However, in 1964, the largest earthquake recorded in U.S. history (9.2 magnitude) uplifted the Delta by 1.0-4.0 m, initiating delta-wide changes in hydrology, vegetation distributions, and successional processes. The proportion of stands dominated by woody species, especially alder (Alnus viridis sinuata) and spruce (Picea sitchensis), increased visibly. Furthermore, previous research (1987-89) observed that 90% of the moose on the western region of the Delta wintered within 9-24% of the total land area, possibly restricting their available winter browse. Because moose diets on the CRD are dominated by willows (Salix spp.), managers were concerned that the combined effects of a restricted winter range and earthquake-initiated vegetation changes would negatively influence the population. Managers have responded to this concern by 1) supporting work to estimate the nutritional carrying capacity (NCC; i.e., the forage available to a population within a specified area and time) of the Delta, and 2) by exploring the feasibility of mechanical treatment as a means of stimulating browse production for the moose. Thus, the objectives of this thesis were to 1) explore the factors influencing NCC for moose on the west CRD while combining updated digital and field-collected data to estimate NCC, and 2) to assess the effects of mechanical treatment on the production of moose browse across stand types and over time.
We collected field data and evaluated differences in the past (1988-89) and present (2012-13) biomass-predicting regression equations for two willow species (Barclay's and Hooker's willow, Salix barclayi and hookeriana) used within NCC models to determine 1) whether past and present models of Barclay's willow predicted similarly and 2) whether Hooker’s and Barclay's willow differed in average available biomass, nutritional quality, and utilization by moose. The linear coefficients for the current (2013) Barclay’s willow, Hooker's willow, and combined equations were 2.2x, 1.6x, and 1.9x larger, respectively, than that derived from the 1988 model for Barclay’s willow (which possibly included Hooker's willow data). Thus, willows on the CRD may now be supporting more biomass per stem than predicted by prior models. Hooker's and Barclay's willow did not differ in mean available biomass, nutritional values, or utilization rates. These results suggest a need to evaluate the accuracy of older allometric regressions, though separate identification of the visually-similar Barclay's and Hooker's willow may be unnecessary for future biomass-estimating efforts on the CRD.
To further explore the factors influencing the biomass available to moose and their associated NCC estimates, we compared 5 NCC model types across 4 winter ranges and under 3 winter-severity scenarios for the western CRD moose population. We conducted a sensitivity analysis (Sx) of our final model to determine the relative influence of factors affecting NCC estimates. Lastly, we compared current (2012-13) browse available biomass, stand type areas (2011), and NCC results to those obtained by past research (1987-89, MacCracken et al. 1997 and 1959/1986, Stephenson et al. 2006) to determine changes over time, while evaluating the effects of models incorporating satellite-based estimates of stand areas and forage nutritional values on NCC estimates. Because recent aerial survey observations suggest expansion of the moose winter range, our final model estimated NCC between 2,198-3,471 moose depending on winter severity within a winter range encompassing the entire west Delta. These results suggest the current western moose population (approximately 600 in 2013) is below NCC. Model components with the largest and smallest Sx were snow depth and tannin- and lignin-caused reductions in forage nutritional quality, respectively. Changes from 1987-2013 in available biomass of forage species ranged from -66-493%, while changes from 1959-2011 in stand type areas ranged from -60-661%. Overall, NCC estimates only declined by 2% from 1959-2013, however inclusion of forage nutritional quality in models reduced NCC estimates by 60%.
Lastly, we assessed the use of hydraulic-axing (i.e., hydro-axing) as tool for increasing the available willow biomass. We evaluated treatment effects on biomass, height, nutritional quality (crude protein, lignin, and tannin levels), utilization, and snow burial of the winter forage species within 3 winter-severity scenarios. Sites were treated in 4 winters (1990-92, 2008, 2010, and 2012) within 5 stand types in 20 locations varying from 0.86-63.40 ha in size. Results indicate few significant differences relative to controls, though treatment significantly increased the ratio of willow to alder. Our results may be limited by sample sizes (n = 1-9 per stand type or treatment year) as visual comparison suggests treatment via hydraulic-axing may be an effective method for increasing willow biomass without influencing nutritional quality. However, willows 20-23 years post-treatment are still significantly shorter than untreated willows (P = 0.03). Thus, treatment may result in decreased forage available to moose in severe winters.
Management concerns regarding continued earthquake-initiated changes in vegetation distributions and successional processes prompted our investigation. However, studies on the vegetation dynamics of the CRD suggest the vegetation distribution of the Delta may be relatively stable (Boggs 2000, Thilenius 2008). If so, our current estimates of NCC suggest the west Delta can support a larger moose population than is currently present. Hydro-axing may not be necessary to ensure the future of the moose population, though it could be used to counter increases in alder (Alnus viridis sinuata) which are likely within certain successional sequences. However, together with earthquakes, the processes determining the future forage available on the CRD include complex, interactive forces such as glaciers, the Copper River, oceanic tides, and zoological- and human-caused influences. These forces and their effects on the vegetation create a dynamic ecosystem for the moose population, are difficult to predict, and may be further complicated by climate change. As a result, application of any managerial tool may be temporary and often difficult. However, this guarantees a constant need for further revision and redevelopment of the tools used to manage the moose population, ensuring that the moose of the CRD will remain an important resource for researching and refining ungulate management worldwide.