Of moose and death

An Outdoor View

A couple of days ago while out for a walk, I saw a yearling moose coming down the road toward me. It was thin, walking slowly, obviously in distress. I was far enough away that I didn't represent a threat, at least not yet. I turned around, giving it the road.


Moose are especially cranky this year. This winter's deep snow made it difficult for young moose to reach browse. When they do manage to find some, they don't want to leave it. They resent being disturbed by someone who wants a close-up photo or by someone's loose dog. An irate moose will often charge the nearest person, sometimes an innocent passerby. A year seldom passes without someone being killed or injured by a moose.

If you've ever had to travel through deep snow to get anywhere, you can see why deep snow might irritate a moose. When it's soft and new, moose can usually walk through it with little difficulty. But after a cycle of thawing and freezing, a crust develops. A moose's hooves break through the crust.  To make matters worse, wolves, dogs and people can walk on top of well-frozen crust. Moose probably sense that they're more vulnerable when they can't move easily and quickly. If escape isn't an option, they will go on the offensive.

It's just part of natural deal that many moose calves die during and after winters like the one just past. These pathetic animals wander into town, taking the easiest route, the cleared roads and sidewalks, where they don't have to fight deep snow. We see them by the roadside or in our yards, ribs showing, straining to reach a branch. Some are struck by vehicles. Most die of starvation. I once saw a calf that died while standing, it's head caught in the "V" formed by two leaning trees.

There's not much that can be done to save moose calves from starving. People who feed them contribute to their deaths. A starving moose might eat food given to it by some well-meaning human, but the animal likely can't digest it. That's one reason it's illegal to feed moose. Another reason is that feeding habituates them to humans. Habituated animals come to expect food from humans. When someone approaches one of these moose, it expects to be fed. When its expectations aren't realized, it becomes dangerous to people and domestic animals.

As a general rule, a fed moose is a dead moose. Fish and Game in Soldotna recently had to kill two moose that were being aggressive toward people, after the moose had been fed by people. You might feed a moose and think that you helped it, but you have no way of knowing the whole story, which usually ends badly for the moose.

Feeding moose by enhancing moose habitat near human habitat, though encouraged by some individuals and groups, is controversial.  It encourages moose to come into human contact, which dooms them to either being struck by a vehicle or having to be shot for being aggressive. I won't be cutting down my spruce trees and planting willows around my house, and I hope my neighbors don't.

The recent habitat enhancement work done by well-meaning groups in downtown Soldotna will no doubt attract more moose to town and keep them there. When you have a moose come through your car's windshield in the City of Soldotna, as I did a few years ago, you'll likely share my dim view of enhancing urban habitat.

It's not an easy thing to do, but part of living with wildlife is watching wildlife die. Most of the time, there's nothing we can do to improve the situation. Everything has to die sometime, and winters of deep snow is when death comes to many moose. It's one of the less-pleasant parts of Mother Nature's job.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.