Moose: Coming soon to a valley near you

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – May 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THROUGHOUT MY 16 YEARS in Colorado, I’ve been on a quest. I am determined to log at least one sighting of every major form of native wildlife. Zoo views don’t count. I want my wildlife wild, and in its natural state.

It took 14 years for a black bear to appear on my list. And now, I’m happy to say, I can also add the largest member of the deer family. Yep. I saw a moose. And the most amazing thing about this excellent adventure was that my moose sighting occurred in a rather unlikely location — the Upper Arkansas Valley, not far from my own backyard.

One evening last September, I returned home — about 10 miles south of Leadville on U.S. 24 — to find my husband, Steve, standing outside, waving his arms frantically. “Don’t get out of the car!” he shouted, jumping in and directing me to drive across the highway and onto an unpaved county road. There, in the willows along the Arkansas River a couple hundred yards from our car, stood a magnificent bull moose.

The moose was bedding down for the night. We trained binoculars on him as he turned over the soil with massive antlers. Then he folded his long legs and lay down, head erect, but looking quite comfortable.

If we hadn’t already known he was there, the moose in repose would have been almost impossible to see, camouflaged as he was among the gray-brown willow branches. We kept our vigil, staring at his head, until it was almost dark.

Next morning, we were up before dawn, hoping for another look. “Our” moose was gone but, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Randy Hancock, he hadn’t traveled far. Some Colorado Central readers undoubtedly were fortunate enough to glimpse this imposing creature as he moved south along the Arkansas River.

“For the past two or three years, moose have occasionally wandered down the Upper Arkansas River Valley,” says Hancock, DOW District Wildlife Manager for the Buena Vista District.

To get there, most move south into Kremmling in Middle Park, then continue south along the Blue River in the Dillon area. Then they cross Frémont Pass, following the Arkansas River south through Buena Vista before turning east over Trout Creek Pass and into South Park, Hancock explains.

Our moose, however, moved farther south, then turned west toward Monarch, where he was last seen in late September.

Moose have been documented in Colorado from the time Anglos first set foot in the state. Pioneer settlers reported shooting and killing moose for food, although no accurate records were kept regarding numbers sighted.

“Throughout recorded history, moose were pretty much transient in Colorado,” says Hancock. In fact, permanent moose populations were not established until the mid-1970s, when the public, along with several sportsmen’s organizations, petitioned the Colorado Wildlife Commission to begin a moose reintroduction program.

And “reintroduction” is the correct word, Hancock explains, despite a lack of evidence that Colorado ever supported large, resident moose populations. The DOW considers moose native to Colorado simply because they occurred here naturally, albeit as transients.

Reintroduction began in 1978 when 12 moose from Utah were relocated into North Park, an area south of the Colorado-Wyoming border, says Gene Schoonveld, a Fort Collins-based, DOW Regional Wildlife Biologist for the Northeast Region of Colorado, who worked on the reintroduction program.

The following year, 12 more moose, this time Wyoming natives, were transplanted into North Park. Both of these groups began their Colorado residence near the headwaters of the Illinois River south of Rand.

During the next decade, a dozen moose were introduced into the Laramie River area, and another 100 were established near Creede, with some of the latter group coming from North Park.

In the 20 years since the program’s inception, Colorado’s moose have been extremely prolific. About 1,100 animals now live in the state, in four distinct populations located in North Park (home to the greatest concentration, with 550-600 individuals); the Laramie River area from Rocky Mountain National Park to the Wyoming line; Middle Park; and Creede.

Since radio collars placed on some of the original transplants stopped transmitting after two years, it’s now difficult to track the movements of individual animals, Schoonveld explains.

Moose are notorious wanderers (the word “moose” is derived from an Algonquin Indian word meaning “great wanderer”), with healthy, adult bulls easily traveling 20 to 30 miles a day. So it’s theoretically possible to find moose just about anywhere in Colorado.

But their preferred habitat is timbered areas near lakes, rivers and streams which support large numbers of willows, a favorite moose food. During Colorado summers, moose also frequent subalpine forests, where they dine on shrubs and tree bark.

MOOSE IN THE UPPER ARKANSAS VALLEY are doing what moose do best–“wandering around looking for territory and girlfriends,” says Hancock.

“When they can’t find females here, they either keep on wandering–some for up to five years–or they may take a circular route back around South Park and up toward Walden” to rejoin established populations, he says.

Since yearling females are also known to wander, a bull moose stumbling upon a cow in the Upper Arkansas Valley could set the scene for the genesis of a local band.

About eight years ago, the Colorado Wildlife Commission almost gave nature a boost by considering a petition to establish moose in Lake County. Although nothing came of this proposal, Lake County remains the most promising area in Colorado for a fifth moose population, says Hancock.

Conversely, the San Luis Valley is among the least favorable. “The habitat’s not right,” Hancock explains. “The bottom of the valley is too dry and brushy, with lots of sagebrush and greasewood. And it’s too open.”

Now that you know where to look for moose, what should you do if you see one? “Use common sense, and keep your distance,” Hancock advises. “Moose are big enough that they’re not afraid of anything, especially a little human.”

Cows, particularly those with calves, will charge people who approach too closely.

“And during the rut, the males get mad at anything that moves,” Hancock continues. Bull moose have attacked tractors, oil drillers’ sleds, even moving trains. Several years ago, during Alaska’s grueling, 1,100-mile Iditarod dogsled race, an angry moose charged a competitor’s team, killing four of her dogs.

A safe moose-watching distance is about 100 yards, says Hancock. So if you see a moose, give him or her a wide berth, but don’t pass up the chance to observe one of Colorado’s most awe-inspiring, and unforgettable, residents.

When she’s not writing, Lynda La Rocca watches for moose and birds from her home under Mount Elbert.