By Christina Freeman
On a ridge below Fish Creek Falls in January, a bull moose seeks cover in a stand of oak brush. Photo by Dave Dietrich.
By Jennie Lay
Moose means “twig eater.” They like willow branches, oak brush and conifers.
And that’s why they’ve learned to love the Yampa Valley.
Moose started cropping up around Steamboat Springs in the mid 2000s. In the century before that, moose were seen rarely in Colorado. When they wandered out of Wyoming and Utah, they generally were shot. Case in point, a 1941 mount hangs prominently in the historic Routt County Courthouse: a three-year-old bull moose proudly taken down on Storm Mountain.
Today, we’re living alongside Shiras moose, the moose of the Lower 48. It’s a smaller, different breed than Alaskan moose. At about 800 pounds with a 50-inch antler spread, a bull Shiras moose is bigger than a bull elk, but not as big as they seem because a lot of that is leg. The large flat part of the antler is the “palm” and the older a moose is, the bigger and heavier the palm gets. Antlers fall off annually.
No longer a stranger to moose, Colorado now has healthy populations in the Yampa Valley, the Flat Tops, Poudre River Canyon, North Park, Middle Park, southern Colorado between Gunnisonand Monte Vista, and the Grand Mesa. Most of them can be traced back to moose wildlife officials transplanted into North Park’s prime willow habitat near Walden in 1978 and 1979. A dozen moose were introduced each of those years, and 35 years later Colorado Parks and Wildlife terrestrial biologist Jeff Yost says the North Park population
is holding firm between 500 and 600 animals. All of Colorado’s moose populations except the southern one continue to expand.
Moose are solitary animals. Eight came to the Yampa Valley at first – just enough to breed, says Yost. He says the local population size is tough to calculate because they like to stay high and lurk in the heavy timber, sometimes staying as high 10,500 feet along the South Fork of the Elk River during the winter
Steamboat’s thriving population wandered in from North Park via Middle Park. The Flat Tops moose were transported from North Park to the iconic mountains south of Steamboat in 2010. Since then, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been flying the region and trying to make a classification of how many adult males, young males, cows and calves we have. “We certainly don’t see every moose that’s in there,” Yost says. “We don’t even know if we see 30 percent or 60 percent of them.”
The first Steamboat moose hunting season wasn’t until 2011, but “by 2010 we knew we had a viable population,” Yost says. The Flat Tops saw its first moose hunting season in 2013. Yost notes that pulling a bull moose hunting license is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
This isn’t the case everywhere. Minnesota’s moose population has dropped 50 percent since 2010 and the state closed its moose hunting season. Wyoming has seen some population declines as well. Yost says speculation for the decline includes global warming, shorter winters, heat stress, beetle infestations that expose the moose to less thermal insulation, and parasites. Colorado moose may be doing better simply because they are a newer population.
“They don’t expand tremendously fast, but in places where the
habitat is in great condition – especially places where moose weren’t before – a high percentage will have twins,” Yost says. Moose have babies once a year, in May or June, and the young stay with the mother for a year before they disperse. “If there are lots of twins, we know they’re still expanding their habitat. Once they have just one calf, or none, they’re probably starting to max out their territory.”
In Steamboat, they’re still having twins.
Yost says that one of the reasons moose have required less agency management is because they don’t herd up like elk or deer. Their density rarely exceeds 10 per square mile. On the rare occasions they do get into hay stacks, it’s bad because they can’t digest it. Moose will starve to death with a belly full of hay.
The Flat Tops, Middle Park and Steamboat moose populations will eventually converge, Yost says.
We have an abundance of prime moose habitat. Satellite monitors on Utah and North Park moose are showing the animals using both oak brush and willow. “Put that together and there’s no limit on Northwest Colorado, from here to Craig,” Yost says. “With that kind of a mix, moose could fill up an awful lot of habitat.”
Moose: Getting the Shot
Photographer David Dietrich shares advice for capturing stunning moose photos
David Dietrich reflects on capturing the beautiful winter moose image featured in the Ski Season 2014/15 issue of Steamboat Magazine and shares his top tips for photographing (or just watching) these giants of the forest.
1) Get out early or go out towards sunset! The earlier you get out the better. I have found that most moose bed down for the morning by 8 a.m. Of course, that time varies depending on weather or mating season, but it's a general target I keep in my mind. That doesn’t give you a ton of time to shoot in good light, so I always try to scout an area where I think moose tend to frequent. If I see some in the evening, I’ll usually head to the same spot early in the morning and get set up. They never seem to travel far, so you can usually find them in the same spot.
2) Use a tripod. Because you’re generally shooting in low light, having a steady platform is key. If you don’t have a tripod, invent in one or get a monopod. If you don’t have either, use the hood of your car to steady your shot.
3) Be patient. If you know an area where you frequently see moose, don’t do a quick drive-by and leave. Spent a few minutes glassing with binoculars or get out of your car and take a walk. They are large animals, but they can blend into their surroundings easily.
4) Know their habitat. Chances are, you are not going to find a moose out in the middle of a field grazing on a hot sunny day. Look for them in a willow or boggy environment. The thicker the better. Buffalo Pass is a great place to spot moose. An early morning drive up to Summit Lake could produce several sightings. Also, take a hike from Dry Lake, down to the Soda Creek trail and out to the large wetland at the end of the trail. I’ve seen several moose in the early mornings feeding in the beaver ponds along the way.
5) Keep your distance. Moose are one of the most dangerous animals in the woods. I’ll be honest, I’ve been charged by a moose and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. We see them more and more strolling trough town, feeding on the vegetation in your yards, but we tend to forget they are still wild animals and wild animals are unpredictable.
Dietrich’s favorite moose-watching spots near Steamboat Springs:
1) Buffalo Pass. Wait until hunting season is over and before the snow falls. Point your binoculars and your camera lens on any open meadows just before sunrise.
2) East side of Rabbit Ears Pass. A few trails near Muddy Lake can produce a sighting or two. The Windy Ridge hiking trail, across from Dumont Lake, has some great habitat near Lily Lake.
3) Steamboat Ski Area. During summer, the moose are high up and there in no better way to get higher up than to take the Gondola up and hike out towards the Sunshine trail. I have seen several moose near the Rendezvous Restaurant and on the slopes below it, including willows along the edges of High Noon and Three O’Clock.