Natural Selections (Appeared August 28, 2004 in the Daily Camera
Ken and I had set a camp in the Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park, and now we were beginning to prepare dinner. I was digging through my pack when he quietly said “We’ve got moose.” The young bull moose was only 30 feet away (see photo). These close encounters are becoming more common in Colorado.
The young bull that visited our camp was working its way up a tiny creek, slowly browsing on lush vegetation. He noted our presence, but did not change his browsing or pace. After a few minutes, he foraged his way out of the meadow and into the forest.
Moose, Alces alces, are the largest members of the deer family, with adult males weighing 800 to 1,500 pounds and standing 5.5 to 7.5 feet tall at the shoulder. Females are smaller, weighing 600-800 pounds. Males have large, palmate antlers, 4 to 5 feet across, that are shed each winter. Moose have high, humped shoulders, a short tail, dark brown hair, a pendulous muzzle, large ears, and a flap of skin called a dewlap or bell that dangles from the throat. They can seal their nostrils when browsing underwater.
During the spring, summer and fall, moose prefer to dine in the water. They wade, swim, and even dive to depths of 15 feet to browse on water lilies, arrowheads, sedges, grasses, and algae. In winter, they eat buds, twigs, and bark. Both elk and moose scrape bark from aspen with their lower incisors, creating browse lines of scarred bark.
Moose eat an average of 44 pounds of plants per day, but when they are bulking up for winter, they consume 130 pounds per day. Cellulose, which humans cannot digest, is digested with the aid of microbes in their four-chambered stomach. They repeatedly regurgitate their food, chew the cud, and swallow it again, until it is sufficiently processed to enter the small intestine.
Historically, moose occupied all of the circumboreal forest, which covers the northern portions of Europe, Asia, and North America. In North America, three subspecies are recognized; one is limited to the area around Yellowstone National Park, another is throughout Alaska, and another occupies most of Canada and the northern portion of the Rocky Mountains. The European subspecies is depicted in the cave paintings left by Stone Age artists at Lascaux, France.
In North America, we call it “moose,” a Native American word that means “eater of twigs.” But in Europe, the same animal is called “elk.”
Historical accounts indicate that although some moose wandered into Colorado from Wyoming and Utah, breeding populations of moose did not occur in Colorado. In 1978, the Colorado Division of Wildlife introduced 4 bulls and 8 cows to the Illinois River in North Park, and another 12 were introduced to the same area the following year. In 1986, 12 were released into the nearby Laramie River drainage on the east side of Cameron Pass. A second population was established by introducing 65 moose near Spring Creek Pass, north and west of Creede, in 1991 and 1992. Both populations have thrived, and today, we have over 1,000 moose in Colorado.
Last year, a cow and her calf were resident near CU’s Mountain Research Station, and a youngster wandered into downtown Boulder.
One of the reasons that moose have multiplied so quickly in Colorado is that they were introduced to suitable habitat devoid of their predators, wolves and grizzly bears. Like the burgeoning population of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, something is needed to hold them in check. To control the population, the CDOW releases hunting permits for moose. A similar mechanism is being considered to manage elk in RMNP. I recommend that we bring back the wolves, to strike a more natural balance.
A young bull moose, Alces alces, in the Never Summer Range, Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jeff Mitton