KENAI, Alaska (AP) — Poor habitat is responsible for a diminished moose population in an area that spans most of the northern Kenai Peninsula, and it's unlikely to improve in the coming years, a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge official said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists counted 1,600 moose in Game Management Unit 15A, according to census figures released last week. That's down several hundred from the most recent survey in 2008, the Peninsula Clarion reported ( ).

In early December, Fish and Game biologists recaptured 34 moose cows collared with tracking units in 15A. All the cows lacked sufficient fat and muscle, reducing their chances of conceiving, developing and giving birth to a healthy calf that could survive the winter.

Biologists say forest fire is the best remedy for poor moose habitat. The new growth of small trees and shrubs provides good winter-time browsing areas.

Two forest fires in 1947 and 1969 collectively burned roughly 380,000 acres, and moose populations spiked in the ensuing years.

But the Peninsula has grown since then, and forest fires of such magnitude would be extinguished because of the threat to cities, said Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager.

"Nobody wants a fire that's going to destroy homes," he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of the land in 15A, so fire management is under federal mandate.

The Refuge does prescribed burns, but the forest must be dry enough to burn to the mineral soil, fostering new hardwood growth, Loranger said. It's rare to get to get the right conditions.

"They don't occur at all in our wettest summers, and may occur only for very brief periods of time in many summers with above average or even average rainfall," he said.

The moose numbers were better in unit 15C, which covers all areas south of Tustumena Lake and west of Kenai Mountains. Biologists counted 3,200 moose, an increase from 2010, said Thomas McDonough, a Homer-based biologist who was the census's lead investigator.


Information from: (Kenai, Alaska) Peninsula Clarion,