Behold and beware as moose encounters increase.
By Deanna Drew
Moose sightings are becoming much more common in Colorado, thanks to more than forty years of effort by state wildlife officials. Large populations of moose have always inhabited the forests of Alaska, Canada, and the northern Rocky Mountains, but aside from occasional wanderers passing through, the greatest member of the deer family was largely absent from the Centennial State until it was introduced here beginning in 1978.
Now, moose can be seen in several parts of the state. The more you get to know this large mammal, with its odd features and unusual habits, the more you’ll come to appreciate these curious creatures from the North.
Moose are twice as big as elk, the second largest member of the deer family. The type of moose in Colorado is the Shiras (A. alces shirasi), the smallest moose subspecies, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and stand up to six feet tall at the shoulder.
Generally found at elevations of 7,000 feet and higher, moose live in northern coniferous forests, usually at forest edges and openings near water. Unlike deer and elk, moose eat aquatic vegetation in addition to plants on land, and are adapted to live in and out of water.
Moose wade into lakes and wetlands to eat plants on the bottom or suspended in water, and have large, pointed hooves to help support the heavy animal in deep snow and mud. They are excellent swimmers, and their long, bulbous snout is equipped with a flap inside that closes to keep water out when the animal is submerged.
According to CPW Wildlife Researcher and large mammal specialist Eric Bergman, the special ability of moose to live in mountainous and watery habitats reduces competition with other ungulates and helped make the animal’s introduction into the state such a success. “Their long legs allow moose to take advantage of aquatic vegetation more easily, and to move through deeper snow and not flounder,” says Bergman. “They can use higher elevations in the winter to access forage that other animals can’t get to.”
The name moose is said to be derived from a northern Indian word which means “eater of twigs.” The animal’s massive height allows it to reach up to feed on trees and shrubs like aspen and willow, which make up to 90 percent of its diet. “Moose have a complex digestive system and stomach with multiple chambers that allows them to digest woody particles,” explains Bergman. In winter, when quantity and quality of food is at its least, moose can eat spruce boughs or pine needles to survive. “This characteristic enables them to utilize different landscapes than other native herbivores would use.”
Moose are less social than deer and elk. These solitary and reclusive animals usually stick around a specific home range for most of their twenty-year life. In the winter, moose don’t hibernate but instead may “yard up” or come together in a small group close to water and food, and stay nearby for most of the season. “It is not uncommon for an individual animal to set up shop in a fairly small willow complex and stay there all winter long, if there is nothing to bump them out. They don’t have the desire to wander on their own, a strategy that we don’t see in other species. “
Colorado is sometimes the envy of other states because of its large variety and abundance of wildlife. According to Bergman, it’s the state’s diversity of habitat that stabilizes populations and leads to the wealth of animals that can live here. “Aspen and oak brush communities lend themselves to robust and healthy elk populations, while expanses of rolling sage and piñon/juniper are important for mule deer. Moose prefer valley bottoms and riparian areas,” he says. “We’re also learning that moose can surprise us and move into upland mountain shrub communities that historically we did not associate with moose.”
Because there is minimal competition for food between moose, elk, and deer, along with an abundance of moose habitat, most residents and scientists advocated for the moose’s introduction. “The people saw a habitat type that was not being used by a native herbivore, and thought that moose could thrive in these areas. And they were certainly right about that.”
Bergman notes that unlike some other animals, moose are not an endangered species, so the state has latitude to manage herds without collaboration at the federal level. And besides occasionally damaging a fence or getting into a hay yard in winter when natural food supplies are low, moose have little conflict with the agricultural community, so the introduction program was executed with limited controversy. “No doubt from a watchable wildlife standpoint they are a very valuable species. Compared to a fleeting glance of a pronghorn, moose behaviorally don’t have the same flight strategy. They are fun to watch.”
However memorable it may be, the moose’s larger-than-life appearance can also make for scary wildlife experience. They can be brazen; moose are generally fearless and do not see humans as a threat. They have little to fear in Colorado: in the north, wolves are the principal predator of moose, and bears can kill calves. But here in Colorado wolves are absent, and moose do not live in the same habitat as black bears. And because of its great size, kills by other predators such as mountain lions, coyotes, wolverines, or lynx are minimal.
Moose will usually stand their ground if encountered, but don’t let their casual demeanor fool you: Moose are territorial and can charge if you come too close, especially if cows are protecting their calves or if you have dogs with you. There were five moose attacks in 2021 in Colorado. “The scary part people need to be aware of is that like people, every animal is different. Some are more tolerant than others, and even that can change quickly. It could be a negative human-wildlife interaction, if you get too close.”
There are currently around 3,000 moose in the state, compared to about 300,000 elk and 400,000 mule deer. Their relatively low numbers make moose less of a priority and give wildlife managers fewer resources to manage the herds. But by and large, Bergman says, initial concerns from the livestock community based on uncertainty and perceived risks did not play out and the introduction has been successful.
With a lack of natural predators, harvest by humans is the only tool currently available to keep moose populations at a manageable level in the state, both ecologically and socially. For this, CPW currently issues about 300 total hunting permits for bull or cow moose statewide each year, based on herd management plans with objectives for each region to keep up with ecological and social changes.
Moose are not the only animals to be introduced—or reintroduced, the term used when a species once existed here but has been exterminated by humans—into Colorado. The state has also successfully established lynx and black footed ferrets, and worked to supplement river otter populations, too.
The next major reintroduction project for Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the gray wolf, an apex predator now gone but whose population historically covered most of the state. Wolf populations have been restored in northern Rocky Mountain States, but not without steady opposition from some ranching communities.
In 2021 Colorado voters directed state wildlife managers to begin efforts to bring back the species no later than the end of 2023, so biologists like Bergman have rolled up their shirtsleeves and gotten to work finding a place for wolves to get a foothold. CPW is currently holding public scoping meetings across the state, to gather input on potentially suitable habitat for the missing wolves that once freely roamed the Colorado landscape. “Wildlife populations are continually adapting to change, whether it be natural succession of plant communities, a warming environment, drought, or habitat loss as Colorado’s human population grows. Reintroduction of wolves to Colorado is another source of change. CPW will continue to collect data so that we can hopefully detect the impact of these changes, and subsequently use that information to make informed wildlife management decisions.”