Has the success of Colorado’s moose reintroduction reached a tipping point?

by Lu Snyder

“It was the kind of look that would make you afraid,” says Rowe. Perplexed, he turned in time see a large moose standing about 15 feet off the trail. By the time he realized what was happening, the moose was charging at him through the snow. Rowe tried to dive out of the way, but the animal’s head caught him in the chest and flung him backwards onto the snowpacked trail. He lay prone on his back, watching helplessly as the enormous animal ran over him, its big belly above him, its hooves landing just beyond his head and body. Rowe calls it his death-defying moment. Amazingly, he didn’t get hurt. He didn’t even break a pole or ski. 

It’s been nearly ten years since Matti Rowe was charged by a moose, but he remembers it as vividly as if it were yesterday. It was one of those clear winter days where the sunlight on the snow is almost blinding. Rowe, who worked, at the time,  as a Nordic ski instructor at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort, and a friend put on their classic skis during their lunch break and raced each other along the corduroy trail. As the friends reached a sustained downhill, Rowe tucked and raced ahead. At the bottom of the hill, he took a sharp right, where the trail began a gradual climb. Rowe looked over his shoulder, eager for his friend’s reaction, but it wasn’t the look of defeat he anticipated; his friend looked freaked out.

It turns out, Rowe had unwittingly come between a mother and her calves. It’s one of several dangerous situations  that wildlife experts caution people about as they attempt to educate the public how to coexist safely with the notoriously unpredictable animals. 

There was a time when seeing a moose in Colorado was considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but now our moose population is thriving. In fact, they’ve adapted far better than wildlife experts ever anticipated. As our shared spaces begin to overlap more frequently, the question is: Can we adapt to their presence as easily as they’ve adapted to ours?

Ask wildlife experts for Colorado’s current moose population and they can only offer their best guess: somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000. The lack of concrete data is due in part to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) limited resources for tracking the state’s wildlife populations and the fact that, unlike deer, elk and antelope that move in large, visible herds, moose tend to be solitary animals that often move within the cover of tall willows and thick forests.

Moose aren’t not exactly native to our state. Though we know we’ve had moose in Colorado as far back as 1850, experts believe those were intermittent visitors that wandered across the Wyoming border. Moose may well have eventually established healthy populations here on their own, but the CPW (then known as the Colorado Division of Wildlife or DOW), decided to speed up the process, knowing moose would offer good wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities. In 1978, DOW transplanted 24 moose from Utah and Wyoming to North Park, near Walden. Over the years, it transplanted moose another four times (a total of 215 animals, male and female) throughout the mountains of Colorado—from the far northeast to the southwest.

It wasn’t long before a few moose migrated from North Park into the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), but it was rare to see them around Grand County—or elsewhere in Colorado—until recently. “Ten years ago, it was the story of the summer to see a moose on the east side of the park; now we see them every day,” says Hanem Abouelezz, a RMNP landscape ecologist. 

Once found primarily in areas densely vegetated with willows (their primary food source), along streams, rivers and lakes, moose have adapted well to subalpine forests and have even been seen above treeline. No longer are they found only in remote forest and wilderness areas. It’s not uncommon now to see moose walk among cars and tourists in downtown Grand Lake, Steamboat Springs or Breckenridge. They stroll through neighborhoods, lick mag chloride from cars parked in driveways, snack on colorful flower gardens, nap in grassy yards. Moose have surprised skiers and snowboarders on busy groomed slopes.

The increased sightings offer locals and tourists ample opportunity to admire these fascinating creatures firsthand. Unlike deer and elk, which typically run when approached, moose seem mostly unperturbed by humans, making them a popular subject for photographs. “It’s definitely a big tourist attraction,” says Jeromy Huntington, CPW District Wildlife Manager. “All summer long, we get asked, ‘Where are the moose?’”

At first glance, an adult moose could be mistaken for a large horse—they’re that big. But their long, rectangular heads are unmistakable, especially mature bulls with antlers that can reach up to five feet in width. “It’s amazing to see them float through the forest, how quiet something so big can be,” Abouelezz says. 

But the magnificent animals—which can weigh up to 1,200-pounds, stand taller than 6-feet at the shoulders and can run up to 35-miles-per-hour—are not as docile as one might believe. “We have to respect them,” stresses Tom Davies, CPW District Wildlife Manager. “They are beautiful creatures, but they’re also by far the most dangerous in North America. I would rather get attacked by a mountain lion or a bear than get attacked by a moose.” Experts advise to be especially wary of cows with calves, and bulls during the autumn mating season.

Although the majority of people charged by moose, like Rowe, have escaped unscathed, not everyone has been so fortunate. Grand County has been the site of more serious injuries than anywhere else in the state—and the one and only death to date. In 2006, Grand Lake’s 92-year-old mayor, Louis Heckert, died after a bull moose attacked him as he walked down an alley in town. In 2013, another Grand Lake resident was hospitalized with extensive injuries after her dog provoked a cow moose with a calf to attack. In June of 2017, another woman with a dog was injured in Fraser. 

This fall, CPW released a video, called “Moose Attacks Increasing,” in an effort to educate the public how to avoid dangerous moose conflicts. While most people have a natural fear of mountain lions and bears, they don’t seem to feel similarly threatened by moose, yet “we’ve probably had more people injured by moose, deer and elk than by bears and mountain lions,” Huntington says.

The majority of conflicts—and resulting injuries—have involved dogs, which resemble wolves, a natural predator of moose. It’s instinctual for moose to defend themselves when they see dogs. “When a dog is off-leash, the encounter is more likely to become dangerous as, often, the dog retreats to its owner and brings an angry moose with it,” explains Huntington.

But even those without canine companions should be aware of the risk of getting too close to the immense animals. People regularly create dangerous situations as they approach and photograph moose. This past October, Grand Lake resident Peggy Lenahan watched as people crowded around a cow moose and its calf that nibbled on flowers in front of a store along the town’s boardwalk. “People circled them and did not give them an escape route,” says Lenahan. Most ignored her warnings to move back and give the animals space. 

“There’s a lot of folks that don’t recognize the threat,” Huntington says. The CPW video released this fall includes footage of humans and dogs getting way too close to the wild animals—some even trying to pet or feed them and otherwise harassing them. While many may be visitors who don’t know any better, locals can also be part of the problem. “People think ‘I’ve seen this moose a hundred times in my neighborhood.’ But you don’t know if what was not an issue last week is going to be “too close” today,” says Lyle Sidener, CPW Area Wildlife Manager.

“The way I look at it, a moose isn’t attacking people; it’s defending itself,” explains Jeff Yost, a CPW terrestrial biologist in Steamboat Springs. It’s not a question of whether a moose will charge to defend itself, but when. “If somebody gets too close, if they feel threatened, they will definitely charge. But as soon as the threat stops, they stop. The moose doesn’t usually stay there and injure them further.”

In the end though, it doesn’t matter what provoked the moose, if it was protecting its calves or if it was harassed. If a human is injured—no matter the circumstances—it’s a death sentence for the animal. “If a moose knocks somebody down or injures someone, we have to euthanize them,” Yost explains. “Public safety always trumps the welfare of that individual animal.”

With mountain development on the rise and visitor numbers at all-time highs, it’s likely the number of moose and human encounters will only continue to climb. 

While areas suitable for but so far unpopulated by moose still exist in Colorado, our moose population has surpassed wildlife experts’ initial expectations. The original goal for moose in Grand and Summit counties, for example, was 190. Today’s estimated population of 350 is nearly double that and the true numbers may even exceed those estimates. “Moose are far more adaptable than we originally realized,” says Eric Bergman, a CPW wildlife researcher. 

Here in Grand County, school children are more likely to come home with information on moose safety than stranger danger. In neighboring Summit County, schools have been forced to hold recess indoors as small groups of moose, known as bachelor herds, munch on bushes and lick cars outside the building. One school built a fence around its playground, in part to keep kids safe from moose. Parents worry their kids might surprise a moose as they walk home alone from school or play in their backyards. Is that next for Grand County? At what point does the success of Colorado’s moose reintroduction turn to overpopulation—and what then? 

“That’s the question we’re trying to answer,” CPW’s Davies says. “We don’t know what’s optimal. Is there a social carrying capacity? Is there an environmental carrying capacity? We don’t know exactly where that line lies.”

From an ecological standpoint, overpopulation occurs when an overabundance of animals causes environmental deterioration and lack of food. But the social carrying capacity—the number of animals society can tolerate around humans and pets—may come first. “By and large, the core areas we associate with moose in Colorado are likely near their ecological carrying capacity, which explains their dispersal in and increased use of residential areas,” Bergman says. “We’re sorting out how to best balance having moose on the landscape, but also minimizing the risk to people.”

Abouelezz is leading a project to collar moose in RMNP in an effort study the ecological impacts of the park’s moose population. The park has seen a significant decline in willow on its west side over the years. She is quick to clarify: They aren’t assuming moose are the cause of the decline, but merely gathering data to determine whether or not the ecosystem is in balance. The goal of the project is to collar 40 moose in RMNP by the end of 2019—20 on the west side and 20 in the northeastern section. As of September 2018, Abouelezz and her team had collared 27 moose, but the number fluctuates as collars come loose or moose die, she says. In Steamboat Springs, CPW officials collared 12 moose (the goal is 20) after a group of about eight moose regularly interrupted operations and created public safety concerns at the ski resort two winters ago. Both projects will give experts a better understanding of these beautiful animals, including seasonal migration and habitat use.

Not enough time has passed yet to gather more than preliminary data, but Yost has been surprised by the migration patterns—or lack thereof—among the 12 Steamboat moose. Many wildlife experts assumed moose migrations would mirror those of elk and deer, which move down in elevation for the winter and back up in the spring. All except one of the Steamboat moose have stayed within four square miles of where they were collared and some have probably stayed within one square mile, he says. It’s counterintuitive, especially for a population that has so successfully dispersed itself throughout our state.

The collars will also give experts a better gauge at population estimates. “I think there’s more moose than we originally thought,” Yost admits. 

Without wolves, hunting is the only means to control the moose population. Compared with deer, elk and antelope licenses, Colorado moose licenses are highly sought after and difficult to obtain. In 2017, more than 30,000 hunters vied for 359 moose licenses statewide. “If we come to a point where we’re beyond whatever carrying capacity we’re talking about, the only thing we can do is raise the number of licenses,” Davies says. 

Wildlife experts are quick to point out that the increased human/moose encounters are not necessarily due to a sudden surge in the moose population. Colorado’s high-country visitor numbers have soared in the past several years. As of last September, RMNP recorded more than four million visitors for the year, up more than 25 percent since 2014. It’s the old chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: Is it more moose or more people—or a little bit of both?

Meanwhile, CPW officials have reached out to wildlife experts in other communities known for abundant moose populations for guidance as they work to balance Colorado’s robust moose population with the state’s rapid growth and development. The answer, they say, is education.

People need to know how to behave around moose, says Ken Marsh, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage. “Moose aren’t going to go out looking for people to attack.”

Yost has already seen a difference with CPW’s educational efforts in Steamboat. “Early on, we would get calls ‘There’s a moose here, a moose there.’ People were really nervous something bad was going to happen. I think people are starting to get used to the fact we’ve got moose, and, by and large, if we leave them alone, they leave us alone.”

CPW officials work with local governments, schools, resorts, businesses and media in effort to educate residents, second-homeowners and visitors about moose, but is there an effective means of reaching the tens of thousands of visitors that come to the mountains each week?

“It’s not easy,” admits Mark Gocke, public information officer for Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Jackson, Wyoming. “We’ve got people coming from all corners of the earth. They may not be aware of the dangers that come with these large animals.”

It’s all part of a great experiment, CPW experts admit, as they strive to find a balance for moose and humans to co-exist safely.

“Overall, I think having moose in Colorado qualifies as a conservation success story,” Bergman says. “Given the status of moose in other states, it’s nice to know that the species is doing well in at least one place in the Rocky Mountains. They’re doing so well, in fact, that we are now grappling with management issues that likely weren’t on the radar during the 1970s.” He likens the success of Colorado’s moose to that of the Yellowstone’s bison; once on the brink of extinction, the bison population there has now swelled beyond the park’s borders. 

“We’ve been able to use wildlife management tools to establish healthy populations that provide hunting recreation and wildlife viewing opportunities,” says Sidener, who points to a time when a group of French visitors stopped in his office after seeing a moose to illustrate the success. “They said it was the highlight of their trip. I think that speaks volumes.”

Most of us come to the mountains for their wild, untamed beauty and the wildlife that live and roam here. We choose to build and play in the mountains knowing there are inherent risks; we could break a leg skiing, fall off a cliff while climbing a mountain, lose our home to wildfire. It’s what makes Colorado special. Can we embrace our burgeoning moose population? That remains to be seen 

Carin Aichele, of Fraser, was charged by a moose as she rode her mountain bike down the Ditch trail in September. It was her scariest moose moment, but also a beautiful experience, and she says the incident hasn’t changed the way she recreates. “I go out into the wild with a high level of understanding that there are wild things out here,” she says. “I love it. I want it wild. It’s why I live here.” 

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