Sunday, April 1, 2012

Moose and Me

I have been a big fan of moose for as long as I remember. They are beautiful animals with size, strength, and ability to survive in the harshest of environments. It is this combination that endeared me to the moose long before I ever even saw one in real life. They are at the top of my list of favorite wild animals (right up there with the buffalo and the bear).

When I lived in Ohio, there was a huge Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store nearby. The store was filled with mounted animals, including bears, raccoons, deer, foxes, wolves, and many more. Everywhere you looked an animal was staring back at you. My favorite one was the huge bull moose on the upper level. Every time I went into the store, I would stop by the big bull and marvel at his size and beauty. Unfortunately, that was as close as I came to seeing a moose for 40 years.

It wasn't until I came to Alaska that I actually saw a real moose. Sadly, my first view of a moose in the wild was of a dead one. In the Northern Rocky Mountains on the Al-Can Highway, I saw a dead moose on the side of the road, the victim of a collision with a vehicle. Once I got to Alaska, my first glimpse of a live moose wasn't exactly what I expected; it was in the parking lot of Costco in Anchorage.

My real experience with moose didn't start until sometime in April of 2011. Early one morning, just past sunrise, I was driving across the Palmer Hay Flats just south of Palmer and Wasilla. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun peaking over the Chugach Mountains and a light fog drifting from the Cook Inlet over the flat landscape. As I looked across the wide open flats, there were moose everywhere. I counted at least 30 of them scattered around foraging in the emerging spring. It was spectacular.

In the months since that first real moose encounter, I have had many more occasions to see moose, from a distance and up close. Even still, I really don't know a lot about them. Over the next few weeks, I will be researching the moose to learn more about them, their habitat, their impact on human life (and vice versa), and the challenges they face. I will be continuing my observations of moose in their habitat. I will also reflect on many of my experiences with them during the past year. I can't wait to get to become better acquainted with the moose and share the experiences.


Postscript: Someone mentioned that I should expound more on the Costco moose. I wish there was more to expound on, but there really isn't much more to say. As I sat at a red light on the way to work, I saw a moose walking across the empty parking lot. That was about all there was to it, unfortunately. The light turned green and I went on to work. :-)

Learning About Moose

I have long admired the moose, but I really never knew a lot about them. Most of my life has been lived in areas where there are no moose, so I never learned much about them. Even now in Alaska where I see them on a regular basis, I have realized that I don't know a lot about them. It is time to change that.

Moose are the largest members of the deer family. I never gave any thought to what family they belong. I guess I just assumed they had their own family. A moose is a moose, right? Well, I guess a moose is a deer, if you want to be technical. Varieties of moose also vary based on the region in which they live. There are at least six subspecies of moose, but they are all relatively similar genetically. Most of the differences between the subspecies is due to habitat, not genetics. Of those subspecies, the Alaskan moose is the largest. When it comes to moose, the "Everything is bigger in Alaska" cliche is true. Adult male Alaskan moose usually weigh between 1300 and 1600 pounds, standing about six feet at the shoulders.

There are estimated to be at least 200,000 moose in Alaska, and they can be found in almost all parts of the state. They feed on grasses, pond weeds, and birch, willow, and aspen leaves in summer. In winter they subsist mostly on twigs of birch, willow, and aspen. And Alaskans eat moose. The Alaska Department Fish and Game estimates 6000-8000 moose are harvested annually, yielding as much as 3.5 million pounds of meat. That is almost five pounds per Alaskan.

I always wanted to come to Alaska, and I always associated the moose with Alaska. Now that I am in Alaska, I am discovering that the association between moose and Alaska runs much deeper than nice photos in travel brochures. The moose are a part of Alaska life, and there is a strong interdependence between them and the people of Alaska.

As I look out across the flats in the early morning fog, I see at least twenty moose foraging in the late winter landscape. Spring will be here soon, and these guys are ready for it. They are ready to have something to eat besides twigs. They want to walk through the ponds and marshes looking for something fun to eat. For the calves, it will be a time to experience the world on their own for the first time. For the cows, it will be time for new calves. For me, it will be a chance to watch and learn more about the Alaskan moose. Maybe I can also learn more about myself, too.

A Winter Visitor - January 7, 2012

I looked out the back window into the predawn gray as I poured the morning's first cup of coffee. This day promised to be just like every one for the past two weeks -- cold and gray with snow likely. It was -6 degrees probably wouldn't make it above zero. I was looking forward to my day's appointment with coffee, a good book, and the fireplace.

The morning calm was shattered by my wife's yelling from upstairs. "Look out the living room window! Hurry!"

Could it finally be our moose? We first saw moose tracks in the snowy yard the week before Christmas. Since then there have been three other sets of tracks, but to date all we'd seen was tracks. Maybe that would change today. I sat down my coffee mug and ran to the living room window. And this is what I saw near the bottom of our front steps:

He was a young bull, probably facing his first winter alone. He had not dropped his antlers yet, but that would be happening soon. Bulls drop their racks in winter; they are much more able to work through trees and heavy snow without the big antlers slowing them down. Typically, the bigger the rack, the earlier it is dropped. This youngster's small rack was still hanging on.

My wife had been about to take our dog Katie out, and she just happened to look out the window before coming downstairs and out the front door. It is a good thing she did, because a well placed moose kick would have been the end of our little Shih Tzu.

We watched through the window for a several minutes as he ate sticks off the birch trees just in front of the house. He glanced our direction for a brief moment, but quickly turned back to his birch buffet. I decided to go out onto the porch to see what his reaction would be. The porch is pretty high off the ground, with about twelve steps down to the ground, so I was safe from attack. I gently opened the door and peeked down at him. He turned and stared right at me, no more than five feet from the bottom step.

He must have seen that I didn't have a gun. Or maybe he just wasn't old enough to perceive me as a threat to him. Or maybe he knew he could stomp me into a pulp without even working up a sweat. Whatever the reason, he quickly turned back to his breakfast. I stood there in the cold watching for as long as I could stand the cold. Before heading inside, I made my way about halfway down the steps, snapped a couple more photos within ten feet of him, then went back to warmth and my coffee.

After refilling my mug, I came back in the living room. Someone else was very curious about this young bull:

Abby the cat and I watched the moose munch on twigs for perhaps thirty minutes. He then wandered around the area, finally making his way to the back of the house. After some more snacking out back, he made his way to the small copse of woods at the back of the yard. He found a nice flat spot and settled down for a bit of rest.

He rested in the woods for several hours, then he was gone. In the weeks since then, we have seen moose in our yard at least a dozen times. We have also seen moose in our neighborhood numerous other times. Sadly, we have yet to see this baby bull again. Hopefully he has found a good and safe feeding ground, and will come for another visit someday.

Moose on the Flats - January 22, 2012

* Originally published on my Nature Writing Blog on January 22nd.

A trip to The Flats was not on my schedule for today. I had a lot of things to do around the house, and I hoped to get a little rest to prepare me for a busy work week ahead. But I had to drive into town for a couple of things, and I decided on a detour through The Flats for a quick visit. What a good choice I was spectacular.

A few flurries fell as I headed down the four-lane towards the parking area at Reflections Lake. I love this stretch of road. It is a panoramic scene with mountains, creeks, rivers, wetlands, tundra-like flatland, forest, and the ocean inlet converging in one spot.

Rarely do I drive through The Flats without seeing at least a glimpse of a moose or two, but today I was totally blown away by what I saw. There were moose everywhere. It was as if they were having a Moose family reunion or maybe Bullwinkle's birthday party. There had to be at least 40 moose along one mile-long stretch. I pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and tried taking a few pictures (I wish I had a good camera and knew how to use it).

I drove on towards my destination, and saw a couple of ravens ahead on the shoulder of the road. As I got closer, I saw another one approaching. I thought to myself, "That is a huge raven." The bird came to a landing near the others about 20 feet off the road as I got closer. Once I got alongside, I saw that it was not a huge raven at all -- it was a bald eagle, just sitting there looking at me as I drove past. I wanted to stop and attempt a picture, but there was other traffic around and I couldn't do it. It was as if the eagle had stopped just to pose for my photo, but I wasn't able to get the picture taken. Sigh.

At the parking area beside the Knik River, I noticed a black and white bird sitting on a garbage can. The little guy appeared to be trying to find some shelter from the bitter cold wind. I haven't been able to identify what kind of bird it was, but it was pretty good looking little bird. Anybody know what this is?

As I came within a few hundred feet of the parking area, I saw another moose. This was not far from where I had seen the cow yesterday. This could have been the same one as yesterday, but I don't know for sure (those moose sort of all look the same anyway). I parked, grabbed my hat, gloves, and camera, and headed up the trail in the direction of the cow.

I moved slowly as I hoped to get close enough for a good view and photo op. I spotted her at the edge of a clearing a hundred feet or so away. The only thing between us was a small patch of trees and brush. I zoomed through the trees and snapped a few photos as she stood looking at me.

I decided to leave the trail and cut through the brush to get closer. About four steps later I buried up in snow almost to my waist. Old Maggie Moose stood there watching, and I'm pretty sure I saw a smirk on her face; I think I even heard a giggle or two. She watched me struggle for a few more steps, then turned and jogged away into the woods. I'll see you again another day, old gal.

By the time I got back on the trail, the flurries had become a pretty steady snow shower. Miles to go before I sleep tonight, so I headed back to the truck for the ride home. As I drove back across The Flats towards home, all the moose were still out there having their fun. Hopefully I'll see you again tomorrow, pals.

Moose and People

In addition to having the largest human population in the state, South Central Alaska also has one of the highest moose populations. For most of the year, the wide open expanses offer plenty of room for coexistence. In winter that changes. Cold temps and snowfall shrink the world of the moose, bringing them into the human world much more often. The Anchorage moose population in summer is estimated to be about 300. In winter, the estimate jumps to 700 to 1000, as moose migrate down out of the mountains and woods in search of food and a break from heavier snow. Here in the Mat-Su Valley to the north, there are fewer people but a lot more moose, and the moose flock towards inhabited areas here too.

The snow and cold present a number of challenges for moose. Their available food is greatly reduced; they are forced to rely mostly on twigs and small tree limbs. Not only is this food harder to find, it is also less nutritious and filling. The heavy snow causes the moose to expend much more energy to get to this scarce food. To compensate, they frequent roadways, railways, sidewalks, trails, yards, areas where the going is easier.

As our worlds collide, the results are sometimes humorous. A popular Youtube video from earlier this winter showed a moose wandering into a hospital lobby in Anchorage. Fortunately, both moose and people escaped injury. Also in Anchorage, a man came home to find a moose on the roof of his garage; the moose had walked up a snowbank right onto the roof (photo below courtesy of Anchorage Daily News and Both moose and man were unharmed as the moose later walked back down the way he had gone up.

According to troopers at the nearby Alaska State Trooper post, this year's tough winter has increased the number of moose-human calls. Among them:

* A moose had his leg tangled in a dog chain and couldn't escape. The more he struggled, the more he was trapped. After some tense moments, the moose was freed by troopers and quickly ran into the woods and out of sight.

* A moose cow somehow made its way into a shed and was feasting on horse feed. She reluctantly ran out of the shed, but it took a lot of encouragement from the troopers.

* A cow charged two women as they walked their kids to the bus stop near the town of Houston. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries.

Moose are generally not very aggressive, unless they feel threatened, endangered, or crowded. They usually will not seek a confrontation with people if people leave them alone. Sometimes, though, people are just stupid. Another recent popular internet video shows a woman who actually touches a moose in an Anchorage neighborhood as it sat near a house. Luckily for her, the moose didn't charge, but simply turned and trotted away. It is stupidity like this that often causes real problems between moose and people.

There are times when moose-people encounters do not end well, especially when dogs are involved. Dogs and moose do not react well to each other. A well-placed moose kick to a dog rarely ends well for the canine. One of the better known moose-dog encounters happened during the 1985 Iditarod. Future 4-time race winner Susan Butcher appeared on the way to becoming the first woman to win, but a pregnant moose changed that. Butcher's best efforts to persuade the frightened moose to yield her ground were unsuccessful. The moose attacked Butcher's team, killing two dogs and injuring six others.

Instances like Butcher's sometimes cannot be avoided, but most of the time we humans can dictate the outcome. When we act with caution, common sense, and patience, we can prevent harm to ourselves and the moose.

As I sit in my den typing this, I notice that our neighborhood cow and calf (more on them in a later post) are in the woods across the street. I think I will go out onto the front porch and watch them for a while -- from a safe distance, of course.

Cow and Calf

We first spotted the cow and calf in our yard in mid-January. They wandered through our back yard, pausing for a snack here and there before making their way into the woods down the street. The cow never let the calf get more than a few feet away, keeping an eye and ear open for any hint of danger.

A couple of weeks later, they were in the back yard again early one weekend morning. They feasted on the birch trees for a good part of the morning, and then settled in for a midday rest that would last until almost dusk.

A few weeks later, the cow and calf were back again late one afternoon.They treated me to an amazing sight. I watched from the glass sliding door in the kitchen as they foraged in our yard. A lone cow emerged from the woods into a neighbor's back yard. The ever-vigilant mother in our yard took notice quickly of the new cow on the scene. She stood staring intently for two or three minutes at the trespassing cow about 150 feet away. She suddenly decided that enough was enough. She charged as fast as she could through the snow directly at the lone cow. Perhaps cow number two was as startled as I was by the mad mother's charge. She stood there frozen watching the charge, and barely missed being kicked and headbutted before running back into the woods. Having successfully defended her turf, mother cow walked back over to her calf, and they began eating twigs as if nothing had happened.

We've come to consider these two as our neighborhood cow and calf. Rarely has a week gone by without a glimpse of the two of them. Mother is always shadowing the child, always looking for danger. Once the snow melts, I know they will likely head towards the Talkeetna Mountains just a couple of miles to the north, but I'm glad they chose to spend the winter here in our part of town.

The Lonely Cow

There is a small wooded hill directly behind our back yard. It is a short hill but rather steep, and in summer it is covered with heavy brush, undergrowth, and fallen trees and sticks. None of those things are visible this morning; they are all blanketed by at least two feet of snow.

This morning, as I open the blinds on the door and windows that look out in that direction, I see a lone cow making her way down the hill. I am instantly struck by two things as I watch her. First, she walks down the steep hill without a stumble or pause. The deep snow would be enough to cause a stumble on its own. When you factor in all the sticks, brush, saplings, and other obstructions under the snow, it is not an easy stroll. Add in the steep grade, and you would think the cow would be stumbling all over the place. This is not the case, as she makes her way down the hill with surprising ease.

The second thing I'm struck by is that she is a cow alone. Most of the cows I've seen this winter have a closely guarded calf in tow. I wonder why there is no calf here this morning. Was there a calf that was taken away by tragedy? Did stillbirth, starvation, a car, or some other misfortune take this lonely cow's calf from her? Or was there ever a calf for this cow? I like to hope that she is just a young cow who hasn't yet begun her calf bearing yet.

Moose typically breed in late summer or early fall, and give birth about 8 months later; this is done on a yearly basis. This year's brutal winter might affect this cycle not just for this year, but for the next two years. The struggle for food this winter will likely result in higher rates of calf stillbirths in spring. It also could affect breeding this fall. Ovulation periods of moose can be disrupted by a lack of quality nutrition. That ovulation might happen too late in the breeding season, or it might be too weak, or it might not happen at all. It is possible that a cow might go two breeding seasons without a calf. If this happens much, the consequences on moose population could be drastic.

Abby the cat is once again here with me as I moose watch.

As we watch the cow trudge through the snow, I seem to detect a little bit of melancholy. It seems that she is lonely, or maybe she is mourning a lost calf. Maybe she is just tired of the snow and tired of birch twigs. Or perhaps she is just thinking about how she'd rather be wading in a pond and basking in the warm sunshine.

Keep your snout up, old girl. Hopefully this time next year I'll see you and your calf right here munching on my trees.

Change is Coming

The 45 degree temperature feels almost tropical today. The heavy snowpack is starting to melt with startling quickness. There is a long way to go before it is gone, but a lot of progress is being made. There are even a couple of spots where the grass is visible for the first time since before Thanksgiving. Change is coming, and I will have to get out the lawn mower in a few weeks.

Our neighborhood moose cow and calf are back for their regular visit. I can see change is on the way for them too. They are still relegated to eating twigs and limbs for a while longer, but the snow is not as deep and the going is not as slow. But that isn't the big change I notice.

A cow gives birth to a calf in late spring or early summer. For almost a year after that, she and the calf are inseparable. In the fall, the calf is weaned and the cow breeds again, but the once again pregnant cow and her calf stay together through the winter and into the spring. Then, about a month before birthing time for the cow, she shoos away her eleven-or-so month old calf. After being shadowed by mother for all its life, it is now on its own.

I've watched this pair throughout the winter, with the cow constantly there to watch over the calf (including the charging episode I wrote about earlier). Rarely has the calf been more than thirty feet from mom. Yet today the distance between them seems to be growing. Make no mistake...the cow is still very alert to any hint of danger, but she seems to be gradually allowing the calf more independence. She knows the time will soon come when he will be on his own.

She lingers in our yard, while he strolls down the road. She watches him go a few hundred feet, finally stopping to munch on a tree about six houses down. She munches on our tree, all the while keeping an eye on him. Finally she decides he's had enough freedom and strolls down to join him. She's still in charge for now, but one day soon they will part company for good.

Moose & Cars

My friend Dale in Chattanooga grew up in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. A few years ago, he was driving through Maine on his way to visit his parents back home. Suddenly from the woods to his right, a bull moose came barreling into the road and right into the front of his car. The moose's body slid right across his hood, and the head went right through the windshield. One side of the bull's antlers buried itself deep into the armrest on the center console. Thankfully, Dale was uninjured except for some bruises and a small cut on the right side of his forehead where the antler barely grazed him. One foot to the left, and the antler likely would have killed him.

Here in Alaska, this sort of thing happens on almost a daily basis. Most experts agree that South Central Alaska leads the world in the dubious statistic of moose-car collisions. Here in the Mat-Su Valley, the average number of accidents per year is around 300. It has been a different story this year:

Sadly, this number is actually higher than the sign shows, as it hasn't been updated since around the first of March. Also sad is that most of these accidents happen so quickly (as was the case with my friend Dale) that there is virtually nothing to do to avoid them. The best a driver can do is stay alert and pay attention to the shoulders and edges of the road, and drive safe speeds. And hope and pray you see a moose before it is too late.

There is a lot of debate about what can be done to reduce these collisions. One idea championed by a local moose advocacy group is the relocation of moose to less populated areas. They contend that moose can be drugged, captured, and relocated to wilderness areas away from roadways. This group recently secured state funding for this and other moose related programs. The funding signifies that there is some support for the program, but many are not convinced. Some think the actual impact of the program will be minimal at best. Others contend that the program is little more than an attempt to stock wilderness areas to enable easy hunting.

There is one thing being done in the wake of moose-car accidents that just about everyone agrees on. Whenever a moose collision is reported, a group of volunteers springs into action. They rush to the accident site and salvage as much meat as possible. That meat is then given to charity groups to provide food for the needy. At least some good can come of the accident.

I hope I never become one of the numbers on the road sign. If it does happen, I at least hope my family and I escape injury. Even if we do, though, the moose will not be so lucky. When it comes to moose vs. automobile, the moose always loses.

What I Have Learned

During the past few weeks, moose have occupied my thoughts a great deal. I have been fortunate enough to see them on a regular basis. Sometimes this happened from a distance as I drove, and other times it has been as close as my back yard. I have read a lot about them, and learned a lot of things that surprised me.

Moose are strong and rugged animals. They live and thrive in some of the harshest and coldest climates in the world. They are able to survive for months on twigs and limbs. They face challenges from hunters, from automobiles, and sometimes from predators like bears and wolves.

Moose also face unseen challenges. One surprising fact about moose is the sensitivity of their digestive systems. Their diets are complex and hard to duplicate. These complicated nutritional needs are the main reason there have been few successful attempts at domestication of the moose. Zoos rarely keep moose because they cannot provide nutrition to sustain them. Efforts at moose farming have largely failed for the same reason. Humans just cannot seem to provide the same thing nature provides for them.

Moose are highly susceptible to a number of diseases carried by other animals. For instance, the moose and the whitetail deer seldom live in close proximity to each other. A certain common bacteria carried harmlessly by deer are fatal to moose. Deer ticks can also be fatal to moose, as can a number of ailments that are only minor illnesses to livestock.

Moose are solitary animals, too. A newborn calf stays with its mother for the first eleven months or so of its life. After that, the cow and calf part for good. Other than the short rutting season each fall, moose stay to themselves and do not socialize with each other. They don't seek help from each other to survive.

When I started this project, I liked the moose simply because I thought they were impressive looking animals. Now that I know more about them, I really am in awe of them. It would be easy to take them for granted, to think their massive size makes it easy for them. In fact, they face great odds in their quest for survival -- hunger, cold, snow, predators, humans, disease, cars -- and they face them alone.

I think a pet bull moose would be a fun thing to have. That wouldn't be fair to the moose, though. A moose belongs out in nature. In snow, not a barn. Eating twigs, not hay. Wild and free, not fenced and trapped. That is what he deserves, and that is what I hope he gets. I think I would like the same thing (except for the eating twigs part).

Note: All the photos in the blog are mine except for the one noted from and this last one. I found this last one online thanks to a google search, and it is so awesome I had to include it. It was found at a blog by L.D. Jackson's blog titled, oddly enough, Political Realities,