At least 1,000 moose are estimated to live in Washington. Almost all are in the northeastern counties of Pend Oreille, Stevens, and Spokane. Occasionally moose are spotted in the northwestern and north-central counties of Whatcom, Okanogan, and Ferry, and a wanderer or two has been seen in other areas. But the only significant populations are in the northeast's Selkirk Mountains that range into Idaho and British Columbia.
As the largest member of North America's deer family, the moose (Alces alces) is unforgettable, whether viewed from a distance or especially when encountered up close. Its sheer size commands respect. Its uniqueness makes it a curiosity.
Moose are dark brown and long-legged with massive shoulders. They have prominent muzzles with an overhanging upper lip, and a large flap of hair-covered skin that hangs beneath the throat called a "bell." Adult males or bulls have broad, flat, palmated antlers tipped with a number of points, depending on age and health. Yearling males have forked antlers and by about five years of age the familiar palmated rack has developed. Antlers are shed during the winter and regrown each spring.
Washington's moose belong to a subspecies called "Shira's" moose, which is physically smaller than more northern-dwelling moose. Adults measure nearly six feet at the shoulder. A bull's antler spread can be as much as 6-1/2 feet across. Bulls weigh between 850 and 1,100 pounds and adult females or cows weigh between 600 and 800 pounds.
Moose tend to be loners, except for cows and their calves. Breeding occurs in the fall and single or twin calves are born in June. Yearling calves often live with their mothers until the cow drives them off to give birth to a new calf. Some yearlings re-group with the family several weeks after birth and remain with the cow for up to two years of age.
Black bears and cougars are the most common predators of moose calves in Washington. In areas where wolves and grizzly bears are more abundant, they are the dominant moose predators.
Generally moose prefer forested habitat where lakes, marshes, and other wetlands provide them with aquatic vegetation and willows. But in less wet areas, like northeast Washington, they also eat the woody browse in early stages of regrowth following disturbances like fires, logging, and clearing. Moose are a pioneering type animal and adapt to a variety of available forage.
With its great size and forage demands, the home range of the average moose in any given season is about three to six square miles, although they habitually wander much further.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) classifies moose as a game animal. A limited number of special, once-in-a-lifetime moose hunting permits are issued each year on a draw basis to hunters with valid licenses and tags. The season is open during October and November in five moose management units in northeast Washington.
Washington's moose population has been slowly growing since the first confirmed moose sighting was made in Pend Oreille County in the early '50's. A study conducted in the early '70's indicated a population of about 60 moose. The first moose hunting season in Washington was in 1977 with three permits in the Selkirk unit of Pend Oreille County. Increased moose sightings throughout the area and beyond suggested a growing population. In 1987 one moose hunting permit was allowed in the Mt. Spokane unit. By 1998 there was a total of 43 permits among five units, and by 2006 there were 100 permits over 10 units.
Since the '90's the number of moose sightings rapidly increased, including an alarming number of poaching cases. Many illegal moose kills appear to be a kind of vandalism by road-cruising shooters who leave carcasses without any attempt to retrieve game meat. The problem isn't just more moose, but more people. "Moose patrol" is now a WDFW enforcement priority with a boost in cash rewards for information leading to poacher convictions and strategic use of moose decoys and stakeouts.
Information can be relayed through the 24-hour, toll-free poaching hotline: 1-877-933-9847.
Even greater testimony to the parallel growth of both human and moose populations is the increased incidents of moose wandering into the suburban and urban areas of Spokane. WDFW personnel attempt to either "escort" the wanderers away from the potential hazards of civilization and back to the woods, or occasionally tranquilize and relocate troublesome individuals. Relocated moose are now marked, either with colored ear tags or radio telemetry equipment, to learn more about where they go and whether they are repeat visitors to the city.
Most people seem to like moose because they're so different. They don't spook or shy away from us as readily as deer, appearing more docile or even curious. But something to remember about moose is that anything that big can be potentially dangerous.
Actually moose, like any wild animal, can feel threatened by and fearful of people. Although with their long legs they could outrun us, they are not built for speed like deer and will often choose "fight" over "flight" to escape a situation. A charging moose often kicks forward with its front feet, knocking down the threat, then stomping and kicking with all four feet. Antlered bulls can use their racks just as lethally.
Moose can be aggressive any time, but at these times in particular:
- In late spring, early summer when a cow feels her very young calf is in danger
- In the fall when a breeding bull is competitive and agitated
- In the winter when they are hungry and tired from walking in deep snow
- Anytime dogs chase or just bark at them
- Anytime people approach them too closely
Since that nearly covers the calendar year and more, what do you do when you see a moose?
Most importantly, give any moose in any environment lots of space. If you're hiking in the woods, yield the trail in whatever way works -- back off, change directions, and enjoy the animal only from a distance.
This is especially important during the winter for snowmobilers and skiers because moose travel on broken trails to save energy.
Be especially alert around cow moose in late May and throughout June since there is a good chance a newborn calf is around. If you see a calf and not a cow, be extremely careful moving out of the area; you may have walked between mother and baby, which is probably the most dangerous place to be.
While enjoying the outdoors in the fall, be alert for bull moose in the breeding season. The peak of this "rut" is generally late September and early October, but it can extend from early September through late November. Cow moose can be aggressive at this time, too. Although these animals aren't focused on you at this time, give them a wide berth to avoid being mistaken as intrusive competition.
Keep all dogs confined in moose country. Moose consider dogs, which are close relatives of wolves, to be their mortal enemy. Moose have been known to go out of their way to kick at a dog, even one on a leash or in a fenced yard. If you see a moose where you live, bring dogs inside. If you're walking with your dog and see a moose, keep your dog quiet and take an alternate route out of the area. Never hike or camp with dogs in moose country.
If you are driving and come upon a moose standing or walking in the road, yield to the moose. It may be trying to rest or save energy, and if you try to move it, your motor vehicle could come under attack. If you are driving at night in an area that is frequented by moose, slow down and be extra cautious -- a collision with a moose could be fatal for both of you.
If a moose wanders into a suburban or urban neighborhood where it will have trouble wandering out because of traffic and other human congestion, contact WDFW's Spokane office (509-892-1001) for assistance. Meanwhile, confine dogs and other pets and keep children inside and quiet. Give the moose ample room to move out of your yard. Don't block escape routes or allow others to do so. Draw curtains on large glass doors and windows so that moose don't mistake them for an escape route.
Do not approach any moose, even if it seems quiet and gentle. Moose often lay down in the shade of buildings and trees to rest and cool down. If approached repeatedly, even by the best-intentioned onlookers, it may become stressed and aggressive. Enjoy the visitor from a respectable distance. Use binoculars and telephoto camera lenses. Be patient.
Never feed moose. Moose that are fed by people often become aggressive when they are not fed as expected. They may attack another person who has no food to offer. A moose with a history of unprovoked attacks on people may have to be killed to protect public safety.
Many moose charges are bluffs or warnings, but you need to take them all seriously. Even a calf, which weighs 300 to 400 pounds by its first winter, can injure you.
A moose that sees you and walks slowly towards you is not trying to be your friend. It is probably warning you to keep away (or looking for a handout if it's been fed). It may signal an attack by laying its ears back, raising the long hairs on its shoulder hump, stomping the ground, or swinging its head in your direction. If you see it licking its lips you are far too close!
Back off. Look for the nearest tree, fence, building or other obstruction to hide behind. Unlike with cougars, bears or even dogs, it's usually a good idea to run from a moose because usually it won't chase you very far. You can run around a tree or other obstacle faster than a moose can.
If a moose knocks you down, it may continue running, or start stomping and kicking. Curl up in a ball, protect your head with your arms and hands, and hold still. Don't move or try to get up until the moose moves a safe distance away, or it may renew its attack.
Moose are a unique part of the high quality of life in Washington. If we take the time to think about their behavior and our own in response to them, and we teach our children to do the same, we can enjoy sharing space with this spectacular animal.
|Adapted from "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest" (see http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/book)
Written by: Russell Link, Urban Wildlife Biologist