Oregon moose population higher than ever

Video: Footage of a radio-collared moose in Oregon

By Tara Bannow / The Bulletin / @tarabannow

Published Jan 26, 2014 at 12:11AM / Updated Jan 31, 2014 at 03:30PM

Despite the many claims that Montana’s Glacier National Park is home to an enviable moose population, Bend resident Mike Quick didn’t spot a single one on his trip there last summer.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming? Nada.

It wasn’t until Quick, a patrol deputy with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department, was traveling through Northeast Oregon near Troy on a deer hunt that he finally saw one as he drove past the same pond he’d gone by “hundreds of times.”

“I looked over, I looked away and was like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a moose!’” he said.

The large female moose, called a cow, stood in the water and calmly chewed a mouthful of wet moss as Quick and his son snapped photos from about 30 yards away.

“It made my whole trip,” Quick said. “It was better than deer-hunting. It was awesome to see the moose.”

Such sightings have increased sharply in Oregon since 2000, and the state is now home to an estimated 70 moose and counting, more than ever in its history.

An expert with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife expects they could become even more common in future years as Oregon’s resident moose population continues to grow.

Moose have occasionally been spotted in Oregon since the 1960s, but the state historically isn’t known for having any native moose, unlike Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and regions of Canada. But, for reasons that are yet unclear, a new gang of moose has made Oregon — primarily the Blue Mountain region north of Elgin — its home.

Pat Matthews, district wildlife biologist with the ODFW, has studied Oregon’s moose population for years. He said the first documented moose calf to be born in Oregon was born in 2005.

“At that time, we finally realized, ‘We don’t just have a bunch of transient animals; we have a resident population of moose here,’” he said.

Oregon’s estimated moose population has risen from 30 in 2006 to 70 in 2012, according to ODFW data, and Matthews said he expects that number to increase. He said he thinks more moose are choosing Oregon as their home because they favor the clear-cut areas left behind by timber companies and the U.S. Forest Service, where they can feed on deciduous vegetation that has regrown since the logging. A lack of wildfires has allowed that regrowth to persist, and the management of hunting seasons in other states may have contributed to the increase, he said.

In another 15 to 20 years, so long as clear-cut areas continue to yield regrowth that’s attractive to moose, Matthews said he thinks the population will expand even farther south and grow its numbers markedly.

If you’re waiting for them to make their way to Central Oregon, though, don’t hold your breath. Matthews said he doesn’t think the moose will travel to the middle of the state or to the Cascade Range. The habitat is much drier outside of the northern Blue Mountains, with more ponderosa pine and less of the deciduous vegetation moose forage on, he said.

“I’d be very surprised if they moved into the Cascades, but who knows,” Matthews said.

Moose study

In 2008, Matthews — who works primarily out of an office in Enterprise — launched a formal study of Oregon’s moose population with the intent of gathering basic information about the animals’ seasonal movements, habitats and reproduction. Over a three-year period, he put radio and GPS collars on 10 moose — both cows and bulls — that provided information about their locations.

He learned the moose are getting all of the nutrients they need, as evidenced by the fact that 35 percent of the cows have twins, a feat he said is indicative of good nutritional intake.

Matthews’ study was limited by an alarming outcome: Four of the 10 moose involved in the project died during the study period, and at unusual times of the year. It’s not uncommon for animals to die during the winter when they’re drawn down nutritionally and finally succumb to the elements, Matthews said, but three of the study’s moose died in July and another in late April. None showed evidence of being attacked by predators.

Moose biologists in Wyoming told Matthews about a parasitic worm they’ve encountered that lives in animals’ carotid arteries, eventually killing them. It primarily preys on deer, but it’s been found in moose, too. The moose that died during Matthews’ study were not fresh enough to find the worms, but he was able to dissect a moose that had accidentally been killed when his crew was attempting to put a collar on it. The carcass contained a cluster of the roughly 4-inch-long worms. He suspects worms caused the deaths of the four moose involved in the study.

Brandon Scurlock, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said research has found the worm in the carotid arteries of a little less than half of the hunter-killed moose sampled in Wyoming. The infected moose did not vary by age or sex, he said.

Scurlock, based out of an office in Pinedale, Wyo., said not all moose die as a result of the worm infections, but it poses an additional hardship.

“It’s just another thing that moose have to deal with, including other parasites like ticks, warming temperatures, habitat impacts and loss,” he said. “It’s probably not helping the moose populations at all.”

Population changes

The Northwest states around Oregon have seen unexplained declines in their moose populations, and even more serious declines are being observed in Minnesota and in the Eastern U.S., Matthews said. Some have speculated that global warming could be the cause, but Matthews said he and biologists in the Rocky Mountain states doubt that as they watch moose — an animal that favors a cold habitat — move south into areas that are often warmer than the temperatures seen in the Midwestern and Eastern regions of the country that are seeing declines.

North America has seen massive changes in its moose distribution since the arrival of European settlers. There used to be strong populations in the Northeastern part of the country that extended south through Pennsylvania, Matthews said. Regions of Canada that currently have lots of moose, however, including southern Alberta and British Columbia, had almost no moose. In fact, Matthews said, Native Americans inhabiting those areas had no word for moose.

Over the past 150 years, the temperature-sensitive animal has expanded its range to populate the southern portion of British Columbia and the Rocky Mountain states, Matthews said.

Preserving the population

Most Oregonians don’t know the state has native moose or how they got here, said Tim Greseth, executive director of Oregon Wildlife, a nonprofit that works to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife habitats in the state and protect public access to those areas. That’s why Oregon Wildlife helped pay for some of the collars that were used in the ODFW’s study and now is hosting lectures around the state designed to teach people about its various wildlife populations. Matthews presented his moose research on the Central Oregon Community College campus earlier this month as part of the series.

The ODFW and other public entities that work to preserve wildlife operate under tight budgets, Greseth said. He said his organization’s role is to round up public dollars to bridge the funding gap.

“We’d like to think we have all the public funding we need to support the conservation of these kinds of species in the state, and the reality is, we don’t,” he said. “Public dollars are increasingly difficult to come by. What we see as our role is to try to get private citizens more involved to try to make up some of that funding gap, so that this work to manage around these species that sit a little bit on the brink can be done.”

In order to keep Oregon’s moose population strong, Matthews said the ODFW will work with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service to encourage controlled burns and logging activity that will allow for deciduous regrowth in those areas. It’s also important to determine the cause of moose mortalities when they’re discovered, he said.

“Moose are extremely magnificent animals,” he said, “and they really represent the true wild here in North America.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,

tbannow@bendbulletin.com

Moose facts

• There are four subspecies of moose in North America. The Shiras moose occupies the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S., including Oregon and southern British Columbia. The smallest subspecies, Shiras moose stand up to 6 feet tall at the shoulder. Mature bulls weigh an average of 1,000 pounds and have an antler width of less than 60 inches.

• Moose breed from mid-September through mid-October. Calves are born in mid to late May.

• In 1922, wildlife workers attempted to transfer moose to the Oregon coast to spur a native moose population in the state. It was unsuccessful. By 1931, the last moose was killed.

• Moose prefer habitats with dense, heavy cover, which makes them difficult to spot in the wild.

Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife