Everyone on the Kenai Peninsula has a good moose story lately – there are moose walking through coffee hut drive-thrus, getting stuck to chairs, hanging out at the entrance to Safeway and otherwise causing shenanigans around the Peninsula.
Funny or not, the real story of those tales is something not so light-hearted: a cold, snowy winter that makes for hungry, sometimes aggressive, moose.
Wildlife personnel are swamped with moose-related calls, and it’s rarely good news.
“The phone rings off the hook at our office,” said Larry Lewis, a biologist with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game.
Wildlife Trooper Luke Kumfer agreed.
“We’re quite busy with people calling in with moose that they feel are stranded in the snow or injured or just not doing well,” Kumfer said.
Some of the calls are benign, when people worry about a moose lying in their yard. Fish and Game prioritizes responding to more serious issues, like entanglements and aggressive moose, Lewis said.
Last week, Troopers responded to a call in Sterling about a moose stuck in a snare trap.
Moose are a common sight in the Sterling neighborhood where the moose was wandering, said resident Michelle Culver.
“We love our moose around here,” she said.
Culver said the moose was wandering around her neighborhood, getting thinner and thinner. She called the Alaska State Troopers to see what was wrong.
They came Feb. 21, and the moose was dead with a heavy snare on its face, she said.
Kumfer responded to the Sterling incident. When he arrived, he found that the moose had died of starvation.
“It could open its mouth a little bit,” he said, but not enough to get a full meal.
Lewis said his department worked with trappers to get the moose moved out of the neighborhood. A dead moose can’t be moved and used for bait unless a trapper has a certain permit, Lewis said. Fish and Game tries to give those permits so that moose can be moved.
Kumfer said snared moose like the one in Sterling aren’t a common sight on the Peninsula.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of in our area,” this winter, he said.
But dead moose in general are more common this winter than others.
Lewis said that quite a few moose have been starving this winter. Every winter some starve, but this year has had more deaths than others, he said.
“This winter is, I’d say, above normal, normal being subjective.” Lewis said. “... It’s hard to watch, but it’s nature.”
Lewis said the last particularly lean winters were in the 1990s.
Starvation results from a variety of factors, including snow depths, Lewis said. Poor quality habitat and cold temperatures intensify the problem.
Just walking around the central Peninsula shows what moose have to munch on.
“There’s not a whole lot out there to eat,” Lewis said.
Hungry and cute or not, Lewis said people shouldn’t start feeding the moose.
While feeding is illegal, Lewis said people have another option.
“If they want to go out and cut tress down, do some habitat improvement on their own property,” they can, Lewis said.
Any work should be done with safety in mind. Don’t cut trees down near roads or homes or anywhere might be unwelcome or unsafe.
Enhancing habitat isn’t the same as hand-feeding moose people food, Lewis said.
“There’s a big difference between placing these anthropogenic food sources … versus making natural browse for them,” Lewis said.
Feeding moose can cause them to become territorial in a place where humans want to travel, offering the potential for human-moose conflict later down the line, Lewis said.
A couple weeks ago, Lewis responded to a call about people feeding moose through a window. That could create a dangerous situation later, when the moose returns looking for more, or becomes defensive of the area.
Lewis used a wildlife Tazer to teach the moose that it wasn’t allowed in the area.
“Absolutely, positively, do not feed these animals,” Lewis said.
Feeding has consequences for humans and moose alike, he said.
Intentional feeding can be a misdemeanor, and even negligent feeding comes with a fine. And if it contributes to aggressive behavior, the moose will be killed to protect human lives, Lewis said.
“So don’t do it,” he said.
Moose are also more aggressive in general because of the hard winter, Lewis said. Moose get their own version of cabin fever that biologists call winter stress.
“They also become more stressed as their body reserves are depleted,” Lewis said.
That can lead them to become more defensive of their space and resources.
Despite the snared moose, Kumfer said that isn’t a common problem. It’s the only one he’s seen this winter, he said.
“The trappers are very cognizant of bycatch,” he said.
Normally, snares are set much lower than where a moose head might get caught in it, although snow can adjust the height.
“Moose will get a leg caught in a snare rather than their head,” Kumfer said.
Newer snares are designed to avoid a trapped leg.
“There are breakaway features for some snares that would limit some of that,” Kumfer said.
The snare that caught the Sterling moose was an older one, and didn’t have that feature, he said.
But some stories have happy endings.
Kenai resident Shauna Thornton looked out the window Feb. 19 and noticed a moose munching on dead things near her porch.
“He hangs out in our neighborhood all the time,” Thornton said.
Because the moose was pretty familiar, she left him alone until she heard another noise.
“I heard a clunk, clunk, clunk and I looked out the window and he’s got chairs on his head,” Thornton said.
The moose’s headgear were two heavy-duty metal-and-plastic chairs that came with a patio set.
“I didn’t know if I should laugh or freak out,” she said.
He turned and narrowly missed her window. Thornton called 9-1-1. A menagerie of law and wildlife enforcement personnel turned out to try and diffuse the situation.
Meanwhile, Thornton called her neighbors to let them know that a frightened moose was on the loose. Nothing more happened that night, though the moose was on the run.
The next day, she heard from a classmate at Kenai Peninsula College that the moose had been spotted elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Lewis caught up with the moose near Tinker Lane on Feb. 22. He got the chairs off, and the moose was uninjured, he said.
By Feb. 23, the moose was walking around the neighborhood again, exhibiting winter stress but looking OK, Lewis said. That day, a neighbor came by wanting to feed it an apple. Despite good intentions, that won’t help with winter stress, he said.
Lewis said such entanglements are just part of his job. He has a wall in his garage filled with the things he’s taken off moose. He’s helped untangle moose from swing sets, bird feeders, even bar stools.
People can actually prevent some of those entanglements by keeping the area close to homes and porches — which is where snow melts first — cleared of potentially problematic items.
But the entanglements are more than just a funny nuisance.
“If we don’t find it, it’s a death trap for that animal,” Lewis said.
Thornton said her neighborhood usually coexists with the local moose pretty well. The chair-incident was a reminder to be extra cautious.
“They’re hungry, so we’re just going to have to give them a wide berth,” Thornton said.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.