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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.

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.

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