A young moose wallows in trash it spread in front of a Kenai home several winters ago. It's never good for wildlife to associate food with humans, according to wildlife officials.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
If you dissect the digestive system of a moose that has died due to starvation you may be surprised to find a full stomach. The food a moose can digest changes from one season to the next and if a moose eats the wrong food at the wrong time its digestive system can become stopped up with undigestable food, using valuable space and energy that could instead be used to process digestable food.
So although feeding a skinny winter moose may seem merciful, it can lead to starvation, one of the reasons state law prohibits the practice, said Jeff Selinger Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist.
“They’ll eat it because they like it, but they won’t get anything out of it,” Selinger said referring to the foods people sometimes feed to moose. “They fill up and bulk up on something they can’t digest. ... It’ll just wad up in their gut.”
A moose’s digestive system harbors a garden of bacteria and insects, a collection of critters known as the moose’s mirco-flora. Without this micro-flora a moose could not break down cellulose to extract nutrients from plant matter.
“If our guts had those kind of critters in them we could eat willow bark and get nutrients out of it,” Selinger said.
Many different species of bacteria and insects live in a moose’s digestive system throughout the year, but which bacteria and insects dominate varies depending on what the moose is eating.
In the summer, for example, when a moose eats lots of aquatic plants and other leafy vegetation, a moose’s micro-flora is dominated by insects and bacteria that break down moist greens quickly. In the winter, on the other hand, a moose’s micro-flora is dominated by insects and bacteria that slowly but efficiently break down woody vegetation, a primary component of their winter diet.
But the balance in a moose’s micro-flora adjusts gradually and cannot adjust to sudden changes in the moose’s diet. So if a moose that has been eating woody vegetation all winter long suddenly feasts on a handout of hay, its seasonal balance of its micro-flora can be disturbed and its digestive system plugged. And even if the moose does not die, a sudden change in diet can still cause serious problems.
“It’s like putting a potato in your tailpipe,” Selinger said. “Your car’s not going to run well until it passes that potato.”
In addition to threatening the health of moose, feeding also leads to sometimes dangerous encounters between people and wildlife.
Moose that become accustomed to people through feeding can become aggressive when they do not receive the handouts they learn to expect.
“They’ll follow you right into the house or nudge out a window,” Selinger said. “They can get really pushy if they don’t get their handouts right away, if they’re used to getting food.”
Moose can become particularly agressive in late winter when they are stressed from subsisting on meager diets and are prone to attack people and domestic animals if they feel threatened when eating. Most food-related encounters be-tween moose, people and domestic animals result due to intentional feeding, but unintentional feeding can lead to problems, too. Like many species of wildlife, moose will not hesitate to seek out pet food, garbage or food unintentionally left outdoors.
“I’ve responded to calls where a moose has its head burried in the garbage just like a bear’s would be,” Selinger said.
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