I was fishing a high elevation stream the other day. It’s a nice little creek, filled with cutthroat and brook trout.
The meadow along the stream is usually filled with anglers on the weekends, but we’re not the only large mammal that frequents the place. Moose are there 24/7.
I ran into a friend at one of the parking areas and noticed he had a can of pepper spray on his wading belt. As we talked he explained it wasn’t for bears (blacks are infrequent visitors here, griz almost nonexistent). Instead, the pepper spray was in case of an unfortunate run-in with a moose.
Later that day — while trying to sort out a presentation for a cuttie pushing 20 inches that had settled into a small eddy armored on three sides by over-hanging willows — I heard a disturbance coming my way from downstream. It turned out it was a pair of anglers working their way back to their truck, but as they passed one shouted out a warning as he pointed over his shoulder: “A word to the wise. There’s a cow moose back there.”
It was getting late and I had a cold beer back in my own truck, so once I spooked that impossible cutthroat I decided to heed the warning of my fellow anglers. The trout downstream could wait.
I’ve never had a serious run-in with one of these largest of deer. When I moved to Montana I spotted my first in-state moose while wade fishing the Bitterroot. Once he got a look at me he started ambling off. I was new to a job at the local newspaper and considered it my duty to get a photo. I put down my fly rod, grabbed my camera, and started off after the animal.
I guess I’m lucky it was a young, nonaggressive bull. When I got to work the next day the old-timers shook their heads when I told them I got the shot by chasing the moose through the cottonwood bottoms. I was young, dumb, and happy to have my photo on Page 1.
I’m not sure I really appreciated how dangerous moose can be until a few years later when I saw a video of a man who was killed by one on the University of Alaska campus. The poor dude got too close to a cow and calf huddled near a building entrance, so mom attacked. Those Alaskan moose are quite a bit larger than the Shiras subspecies in the Northern Rockies and that cow was taller at the shoulders than the man.
Her stomps and kicks were terrifying.
What a way to go. You’re just strolling across campus, on your way to a curriculum committee meeting perhaps, so you’ve left your pepper spray in your office where you keep it to protect yourself from unruly sophomores during midterms, and you end up stomped to death by a monster moose.
There’s been a big decline in moose numbers in the last couple decades. One popular suggestion is that wolves are to blame, and that no doubt plays a role. But in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for instance, the crash began before wolves were reintroduced and was fueled, at least initially, by the loss of favored browse following the catastrophic fires of 1988.
Besides wolves getting a share, biologists consider parasites — internal as well as external — a major problem. One animal was covered by an estimated 100,000 ticks when it was examined. That moose died with a belly full of nutritious browse. It just couldn’t eat fast enough to make up for the blood loss.
Climate change is another threat. Warmer temperatures are tough on an animal that already has trouble coping with heat.
I hope this is just a temporary dip for moose. I don’t care to see them as I walk between classes, but out in mountain meadows? There, I’ll take my chances.
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