DENALI NATIONAL PARK—Two orphan moose calves were safely captured Friday from the entrance area of Denali National Park and transported to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Girdwood.
It took just about one hour for park and wildlife center employees to herd the pair into a special net, where they were then secured and moved to a waiting trailer. Their eyes were covered with a towel to try to keep them calm.
It wasn't calls or letters from concerned citizens that helped make that final decision. It was the realization by park officials that the calves were never going to leave the Riley Creek area and would remain a continual hazard to drivers on the Parks Highway and Park Road. Despite the red traffic cones and "No Parking" signs that lined the highway from the park entrance to the Jonesville Bridge, "moose jams" were a continual problem.
Visitors were getting close enough to the calves to actually feed them. Motorists were seen walking on the highway, crossing the road in front of fast-moving traffic, parking erratically in unsafe locations and leaving vehicle doors open to more easily see or photograph the calves feeding.
The calves also began crossing the highway frequently.
"This is kind of when the risk analysis tipped," park spokeswoman Miriam Valentine said. "We were really starting to see danger of collision on the Parks Highway."
The moose calves were orphaned when someone fatally shot their mother last month near the post office, inside Denali National Park. No one has reported the shooting, so it is being investigated as an illegal moose kill. The calves were just about three weeks old at the time.
Debate about the calves' future began almost immediately, since their situation was caused by a human. They were also very visible in the entrance area. The park initially chose not to intervene.
"People are sensitive, especially when somebody murders a mother, but at the end of the day, that's an isolated event," said Don Striker, superintendent of Denali National Park. "Even though a human caused the death of the cow, that didn't justify, in our minds, additional human intervention in the natural processes."
Instead, the park tried to educate visitors to stay away from the calves and to not feed them. But that was a hard sell, partly because of the "adorable" factor. No one seemed able to resist stopping and getting close to the calves. Everybody wanted to see them and to take photos.
"We really understand people want to do something," Striker said. "They have that mothering instinct."
Park officials consulted with the state immediately and decided on a wait-and-see approach. If the calves weakened, maybe they could be safely captured. They are too young to be anesthetized.
As traffic jams worsened on the Parks Highway, however, officials began a conversation with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
"They have the expertise, the know-how, the manpower, the gear, and the state is comfortable working with them," he said. "I think we were lucky the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center came along."
The path of least resistance would have been to euthanize the calves, Striker said. But the park continued to explore other options.
Meanwhile, biologists monitored the pair and reported they appeared healthy.
But the continual danger of a calf-caused collision on the Parks Highway became too much of a risk. Without a mother to guide them, the calves would likely never leave the entrance area, meaning the hazard would remain.
Before officials could capture the calves, however, they had to find them.
The twins that were in constant public view decided Friday afternoon to hunker down in the trees between the park entrance and Jonesville Bridge. Once they were located, park and center employees positioned themselves along the calves' escape routes and herded them toward nets. The black-colored nets are about 6 feet tall and 400 feet long and were stretched between trees.
The herding generally went smoothly, with only one heart-stopping moment when it appeared the calves might elude captors and run into oncoming traffic on the Parks Highway. They were captured shortly thereafter, however, at first mewing like kittens when they realized they were trapped.
It was a happy crew that saw them loaded into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center trailer, along with some big branches of willow.
The calves will remain in isolation for about 30 days to make sure they are healthy and free of parasites. The center will choose a spot for the calves where they can be kept together. Both are females.
"They'll always stay together," said David Orndorff, animal curator for the center.
They will be there for the rest of their lives. Moose are not permitted to leave the facility, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, due to concerns about parasites on moose originating north of the Alaska Range.
For more information on the center, see www.alaskawildlife.org.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at email@example.com. Call her at the office or by cell 322-6334. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.