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Some old and new thoughts on Moose

It’s been unseasonably hot in the NW Wyoming mountains this summer with very few traditional thunderstorms. The river is a nice retreat. I loaded the new puppy into the car and headed up the road to a fishing hole I know. For some unknown reason, I was dreaming of moose. So sensitive to heat stress, I wondered how they were faring this summer. Shaken out of my reverie, I looked to the river below the road and lo and behold, there was a female moose emerging from the water heading back into the trees.

Mama Moose and newborn calf

Believe it or not, moose and beaver are intricately connected. Beaver east of the divide here struggle to survive. The few we have probably migrated from an introduction at the Montana border, whose intention was to populate the NE corner of the Park. They traveled down the river corridor, found good habitat, and usually are promptly trapped in a few winters. I live in Hunt Area 1 which covers most of the state. Hunt Area 1 has unlimited beaver trapping.

But beavers create the habitat that help moose and other wildlife thrive. On a recent trip into the Gros Vente Wilderness, I saw a lot of beaver sign with prime moose habitat of generous willow growth. Just a day earlier, I’d run into a fellow who told me there were no moose anymore because the wolves had eaten them all. Of course, we saw plenty of moose sign along the trail. Maybe he didn’t know how to recognize it.

Getting ready to walk across a beaver dam, right side of photo

In celebration of seeing my moose yesterday, thriving amidst too hot temperatures, I thought I’d reprint text from an old post that has some succinct yet very basic and important facts about moose.

From April 23,2010 post:

I’d downloaded Scott Becker’s Master Thesis last fall and finally got around to reading it.  He did a study on the moose around the Jackson area, including Dubois, south Yellowstone, and the Tetons.  Here are some of the highlights from his study:

1.  Few, if any, moose existed in Wyoming prior to 1850.  Sporadic observations of moose occurred in NW Wyoming after 1850, but its believed the population didn’t begin to increase and expand until after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

2.  Moose suffer heat stress in winter when temperatures are above -5 degrees celsius (23F); 14 degrees celsius in summer provokes heat stress (57F) and above 27C for extended periods of time is unsuitable for moose without refugia (80F)

3.  Migrations between seasonal ranges follow traditional routes and that knowledge is passed from parent to offspring.  Thus it may takes several generations for moose to adapt to habitat alterations that impact seasonal movements and ranges.

4.  Some of the most important elements of habitat quality include coniferous forests, especially during spring when increasing ambient temperatures limit foraging activities of moose during the day.  Moose movement is very concentrated in winter and dependent on coniferous forests.  Moose population density and calf-cow ratios for the north Jackson herd began to decline shortly after the ’88 Yellowstone fires.

5. The north Jackson herd is in a steady decline.  When female moose are healthy, they usually have twins.  The results of Becker’s study indicate that nutritional quality, rather than the availability of habitat may be the most important determinant limiting population growth.

6.  The impact of predators on calf survival appeared to be minimal.  Although wolves did account for some adult female mortalities, the effect of wolf predation on this population appeared to be minimal.  The apparent preference for elk by wolves in the GYE was likely due to the greater abundance of elk in the area.  Also, because elk are in herds, its easier for wolves to follow and find them.  While moose are solitary and the occasional predation is usually due to happenstance.

7.  Management implications:  Mature coniferous forests are an important component of Shiras moose habitat selection in winter and summer.  Thus disturbances that reduce the amount of mature forests could negatively affect moose population performance.

8.  Becker concludes that nutritional quality of habitat is the most important factor in the declining moose population in the northern Jackson herd.  Habitat quality has been affected by large wildfires, insect outbreaks, widespread drought since the 1990’s, and global warming.  Predators are playing a minor role in the decline of moose in northern Wyoming.

Moose, wolves, and a false spring

Yesterday was another glorious early spring day.  Some friends came up and we took a drive north towards Crandall and beyond, as far as the road is plowed.  The lonely 11 or so miles between Pilot Creek, a parking pull-out for snowmobilers, and the NE entrance to the Park won’t be open for another 5 weeks yet, but they’ll have a lot of plowing to do.  There is still an incredible amount of snow everywhere.  It will be a while before you can hike the backcountry.

As the snowmobilers raced past us to begin their expensive thrills, we idled along looking for wildlife.  The banks by the side of the road have melted but still an easy 4′ high.  This gave good cover for a moose and her calf just on the other side of the highway along the Clark’s Fork River.

Mama with yearling

 

Because we could barely see over the snow bank, we quietly got out of the car to take photos.   Mama and baby kept browsing but mama moved between us and her calf.  What a good mother.

Mama Moose moves between us and her calf

On the way back I shot a photo of Crazy Creek, still solidly covered with snow and ice.  This creek, in a few months, will be an awesome volume of water.

Crazy Creek March 2011

Almost back to Sunlight, I asked my friends, who come up regularly on weekends, if they’d seen any wolves this winter.  They are avid photographers and would like a good shot.  They told me they hadn’t.  Not more than two minutes passed when we spotted 2 wolves by the side of the highway.  This was a most unusual sighting.  Almost 11:00, I’ve almost never seen wolves hanging so near the main road.  There were elk up on the hillside, along with deer, not too far away who didn’t seem too perturbed.  Two wolves would be hard-pressed to bring down an elk, so I suspected there was a kill higher up on the hillside, or possibly down below where they were wanting to cross to.  A big grey sauntered quickly up the hill and out of sight.  But a beautiful black loitered long enough to take some good photos.  Wolves I’ve met always seem intelligently curious.  This one certainly was.

After I came home and my friends were gone, I noticed a yearling moose walking back and forth along the fenceline across the road where the horses are.  The fence has a wooden top post and is very wildlife friendly, but this yearling wasn’t that tall and was very uncertain as to whether she could make the jump.  She moved back and forth for over 15 minutes, trying to find a spot she felt comfortable to cross.  Finally, a car drove up the road, spooked her, and forced her into making the leap.  She did clear, but not without her back leg stuck for a moment.  She ran up my driveway, because its the open line in the fence and stood in front of the house for a while, seemingly perplexed.  Where was her mom, I wondered.

Yearling moose will get kicked out before the mother gives birth again, but it did seem a little soon, but what do I know.  I thought maybe she was already on her own.  She made her way through the front meadow, where I’ve taken down some posts for a winter opening in a buck and rail fence of my neighbors.  It was then I saw her mom, who’d been watching the whole thing patiently.  She was standing in the tree line.  Soon mama and baby were united again.  I had to wonder if mother was, as I would be, gnawing worriedly and wondering if her baby could make the jump successfully, or if mom was treating her offspring to just another new lesson preparing her daughter for the big wide world.

Koda bored because he couldn't get out and play with the wolves!

Moose, snow and wind

The weather has been difficult.  We had an unusual cold snap for several days, down minus 17 at night and around 0 during the day; and now that its warming its blowing snow day and night.  The blowing snow is hard for me.  I hate that wind, and every day, sometimes twice, I have to take my new Sears snowblower and clear out the large drifts in my 500 foot long driveway.

This year I had to buy this to get out of my driveway

I’ve wondered where the animals go when its so cold.  Cold, with their winter coats, isn’t as much of a problem for them as for us.  Its that deep snow cover that is hard on the ungulates.  So when the wind blows hard, its good for them, although I might not like it.  It blows the snow clear and they can feed easier, especially in these most lean months of winter.

Yesterday I ventured out for just a short windy walk into the woods.  I like to frequent there to see what’s happening.  The other day I saw bobcat and coyote tracks, along with the usual deer.  This day I followed 2 moose tracks.

moose track

They wandered slightly up the slope.  Unlike the deer that follow under the trees in shallow snow, these moose didn’t mind the deeper drifts.  They’re well equipped with their powerful long legs.  I figured they wouldn’t head up the steep slope like the deer do.  That’s because their feed is down below, in the willows, although they do munch on conifers in the winter.

I didn’t go far when I found a fresh bed.

moose beds

beds with droppings

They’d lay down in a very deep drift, in a small clearing under a large dead conifer that had been snapped off at the trunk.  From there they had a nice view below of the forest.  Having lived all my life in a non-snow environment, in my  mind I’d thought the animals would lie more under cover with less snow.  But now it makes sense.  Snow is insulating.  I’ve seen elk and moose find deep snow, lie down and let their body heat from a deep snow cave around them.  It didn’t matter that these moose were probably being snowed on.  They were warm in their snow cave.

A brilliant and frigid day

Its -14 degrees tonight at only 7 pm.  Today it was a clear beautiful day and the mercury never got above -1 degrees F.  I got bundled up and went out for a ski, but my new skis have a big problem with their bindings.  I tried for 20 minutes and never got my shoes to hook in, but I got pretty cold in the process.  So I abandoned that idea, threw on my snow shoes, and headed out on the trail by the creek.

An enormous sun-dog, or halo, circled the sun.  The sky was clear blue and the air was so cold you could literally see ice crystals flying by.

Over the bridge there were some old coyote tracks.  This coyote was using a rotary lope.  He switches from one side to the next as you can see from the photo.  Maybe he picks up the pace over the bridge because he’s so exposed with out cover on either side.  I’m working hard on studying gait so I was thrilled to see and recognize this one.

Coyote lopes across the bridge. Notice change from one side to the next

Usually this walk has lots of wolf tracks but none today.  A moose has been walking around the willows

Moose droppings and tracks

.  I find an area near tree cover where several moose lay down.  At first I thought these might be a group of elk, but only moose scat was around and the bed measured 60″–too big for an elk.  Laying in that deep snow, a moose or an elk creates a deep depression with their weight and body heat.  The lay becomes a natural snow cave, insulating them and keeping them warm.

I watched a dipper feeding and bathing.  Wow they are stout little things.  It was so cold my hat was icing up and this bird was hanging in the stream.  Ice flowed by him.

Dipper

On the way out, the elk were spending their resting time mid-day in the upper meadows.  They were there yesterday too when it was just as cold but cloudy.  Usually they hide mid-day in the trees.  I wondered why they were hanging on the hillsides, exposed, during these bitter cold days.  On the way home, around 3:00, they were already out and grazing. Usually when the deer and elk feed early, that’s a sign of a storm coming.  Maybe they know something I don’t.

Why are the elk resting in the meadow mid-day?

On the way up to my cabin, I see a young cow moose running bye.  I suppose its a very cold and moosey day.

Moose by my house

A Rare Treat

Early this morning I noticed the cow moose I saw a few days ago lying by the meadow/forest interface.  I glassed her and saw, to my surprise, she had a little calf with her.  I watched them both for about 45 minutes.  What a treat!

And the last treat:  Yesterday on a hike I stumbled upon a grove of beautiful fairy orchids, one of my favorite flowers here in the mountains.

Calypso bulbosa

What’s happening with the Moose in NW Wyoming

Moose track

Although I’d been hearing from local hands about moose visiting their properties all winter, I’d seen no sign.  But just the other day, on a walk through the springs area of the nearby forest, 2 yearlings watched my neighbor and I casually as we approached on the trail.  I held the dog, who didn’t even notice them, and we all had a few moments of moose/human communion.  Ah, what bliss!

The yearlings went up the hill, we continued along the springs, when I looked down below into the newly logged private lands to catch a glimpse of Mama Moose, big and beautiful, running through the woods.

Yearling moose tracks next to Koda's track

I’d downloaded Scott Becker’s Master Thesis last fall and finally got around to reading it.  He did a study on the moose around the Jackson area, including Dubois, south Yellowstone, and the Tetons.  Here are some of the highlights from his study:

1.  Few, if any, moose existed in Wyoming prior to 1850.  Sporadic observations of moose occurred in NW Wyoming after 1850, but its believed the population didn’t begin to increase and expand until after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

2.  Moose suffer heat stress in winter when temperatures are above -5 degrees celsius (23F); 14 degrees celsius in summer provokes heat stress (57F) and above 27C for extended periods of time is unsuitable for moose without refugia (80F)

3.  Migrations between seasonal ranges follow traditional routes and that knowledge is passed from parent to offspring.  Thus it may takes several generations for moose to adapt to habitat alterations that impact seasonal movements and ranges.

4.  Some of the most important elements of habitat quality include coniferous forests, especially during spring when increasing ambient temperatures limit foraging activities of moose during the day.  Moose movement is very concentrated in winter and dependent on coniferous forests.  Moose population density and calf-cow ratios for the north Jackson herd began to decline shortly after the ’88 Yellowstone fires.

5. The north Jackson herd is in a steady decline.  When female moose are healthy, they usually have twins.  The results of Becker’s study indicate that nutritional quality, rather than the availability of habitat may be the most important determinant limiting population growth.

6.  The impact of predators on calf survival appeared to be minimal.  Although wolves did account for some adult female mortalities, the effect of wolf predation on this population appeared to be minimal.  The apparent preference for elk by wolves in the GYE was likely due to the greater abundance of elk in the area.  Also, because elk are in herds, its easier for wolves to follow and find them.  While moose are solitary and the occasional predation is usually due to happenstance.

7.  Management implications:  Mature coniferous forests are an important component of Shiras moose habitat selection in winter and summer.  Thus disturbances that reduce the amount of mature forests could negatively affect moose population performance.

8.  Becker concludes that nutritional quality of habitat is the most important factor in the declining moose population in the northern Jackson herd.  Habitat quality has been affected by large wildfires, insect outbreaks, widespread drought since the 1990’s, and global warming.  Predators are playing a minor role in the decline of moose in northern Wyoming.

Here’s a video taken last fall of a male and female in the willows just down the road.  You can turn the ridiculous narration off if you want.

GYC annual meeting in Jackson

I just returned from Jackson for the annual Greater Yellowstone Coalition meeting.  The convention was at the plush Jackson Lake Lodge.  The lodge lobby sits in Grand Teton National Park overlooking a large wetland where elk are calving, moose are bedding, and grizzlies are eating.  There’s something wonderful and strange about viewing all the wildlife activity from the comforts of the heated lobby.  Of course, you can also go out on the balcony, but if its raining, as it frequently was, I almost felt guilty being so comfortable inside looking out.

View from Jackson Lake lodge

View from Jackson Lake lodge

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is such a great conservation group.  It’s an organization working within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to solve wildlife/human conflicts.  Its works on issues as diverse as legislation to preserve prime habitat areas to preventing oil and gas leases.  There is a level head to the organization as it attempts to throw out a wider community net and partner groups that might not have otherwise come together.

The annual meeting was fabulous.   This is my third one in four years, and I think it was the best.  Some highlights:  Alexandria Fuller, the keynote speaker, who was charasmatic, witty, and very funny.  She had the crowd laughing over stories from her hometown in Africa and then crying when she discussed her new book about a young man killed in the oil fields because of poor safety procedures.

The other two highlights for me were on Saturday morning.  Kevin Hurley of Wyoming Game and Fish led a round table discussion I joined on Open Grazing on public lands.  His focus was the plight of the bighorn sheep in Idaho.  Afterwards he gave a presentation on the Bighorn Sheep migration around where I live on the Beartooth front.  Just in the last few years, after doing some collaring, they’ve discovered the migration of the bighorns, which follows a peculiar and ancient arc pattern.

Geoffrey O’Gara of Wyoming Public Television followed with a fantastic preview of a new PBS documentary he’s working on about the pronghorn migration and the push to preserve land along their route.  The documentary will raise critical awareness of this pressing issue.

I highly recommend that anyone going to the Tetons take the time to stop and visit the newly opened Laurance Rockefeller Preserve. Donated in 2001, but just opened to the public last year, this was the private residence of the Rockefellers and one of the most pristine places easily accessible by car.  Take the time to walk to the lake.  Laurance used to have his guests park in the parking area and walk the mile and a half to get to the residence by the lake.  That way they’d leave their worries at the gate and begin to experience the wonders of this natural place.

Here is a photo I took of mama moose nursing her calf along the trail to Phelps Lake at the Rockefeller Preserve.

Mama moose nursing calf

Mama moose nursing calf

Mama moose nuzzles her calf

Mama moose nuzzles her calf

Phelps Lake at the Preserve.  Fabulous!

Phelps Lake at the Preserve. Fabulous!

The Moose

My neighbor just had his 85th birthday.  He’s lived in the Valley all his life.  His father homesteaded here back in the early 1900’s.  I love to hang out with him, help with his two horses, and pick his brain for stories.  He knows this country like I might know all the shortcuts in my old hometown neighborhood.  Except his neighborhood is vast, wild, without roads or trails.

I’ve learned over time that, although his memory for details and names is way better than mine, the time periods and placements of events need to be sorted out.  He might tell a tale like it was last week, until I question him more and find out the events took place in the 30’s.  It took me a while to figure out that most of his Yellowstone stories were from the 50’s (when he worked there) rather than just 10 or 20 years ago.

I’d been seeing quite a few moose lately.  One came into my yard the other day, a resident who likes to hang in the marshy willows nearby.  Moose numbers for Wyoming are really low, only 44% of objective, according to a just published Game and Fish report.  I told this to JB and that got him storytelling.

Moose walking down my road at dusk

Moose walking down my road at dusk

Moose in nearby meadow

Moose in nearby meadow

Young bull moose in front yard

Young bull moose in front yard

“It was a snowy winter and I was at the homestead.  I’d feed the cows at the bottom of the pasture near the trees to get them walking a bit.  That’s good for them you know, especially for the pregnant ones.  One day I was down in the timber when I saw a cow moose and three calves.  There were stuck there in a hole and couldn’t get out, the drifts were so bad.  They were real skinny and starving down there.  When the momma saw me, her hair stood on end.”

“So I brought a few bales of hay on my sleigh over.  Every day I’d come to check on them and the cow moose got used to me.  I’d bring them hay, but each day I’d place it a little bit further out of the timber towards the pasture.  Slowly, they came out.  They spent that entire winter in the pasture with my cows.”

Clarks fork drainage near Russell Creek.

Clarks fork drainage near Russell Creek.

“Another time I was way up Dead Indian, you know where the willows are up there?”

I nodded.  I’d seen moose tracks there.  Its about 3 miles or more up the trail.

“I was up there and saw a bull moose.  He’d been shot and was bleeding from the side.  Some hunter shot him but the moose had run off.  He was in real bad shape and the snows were getting deep.  I hauled 20 bales of hay up to him.  I didn’t put it all in one place.  I put it around in the timber where he was at.  Then I left him for the winter.  Come early spring, I went back to check on him.  You know what I found?  He had a friend.  Another bull had come in there and all that hay was gone.  That bull was all healed up and getting around fine now.  I don’t really know how he survived that wound, cause I think he was bleeding on both sides. There had been blood around.  But he made it.”

Dead Indian Creek

Dead Indian Creek

To begin to get a feeling for what’s going on with moose numbers in Wyoming, this is an excellent thesis by Scott Becker.