Biologists track, study urban moose habits

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Moose No. 6 wasn't cooperating.

A loud steady click from a radio receiver, like a metronome, showed the radio-collared cow moose was close, probably just down the road from the Campbell Creek Science Center. But each time Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott ducked into the woods to look, the moose slipped away through birch and spruce.

Sinnott followed, carrying an antenna and radio receiver tuned to the frequency of the collar around her neck. Loud clicks meant he was facing in the right direction. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. Faint ones told him to turn around and walk in the other direction.

''This is mildly dangerous because we're sneaking up on a moose with a calf,'' he whispered. ''If you see me run, then run.''

He zigzagged through the woods, crossing the same road twice. Through trees, he sometimes spotted the moose's yellow collar. Other times he caught a glimpse of an ear, an eye, a brown spindly leg.

Finally, the game ended and Sinnott got a clear view. The moose had just one calf, not two. He jotted that down in a yellow field notebook, along with the coordinates of where the moose and her calf were first seen.

So it went on Thursday, another day in Fish and Game's Anchorage moose study. The department is trying to learn more about how moose make a living in Anchorage, and answer other questions. Where do they rut? Where and when do they calve? What kills them? How far do they roam?

Over the past 18 months, when he's not responding to bear calls, surveying animals to determine population estimates or answering the public's questions about wildlife, Sinnott and an assistant have darted 16 moose and slipped radio collars around their necks to follow them around the city. Four bulls and six cows are still wearing collars.

Sinnott said that it's impossible to draw broad conclusions from such a small sample, but he has learned a few things.

Five of the collared cows had one calf this year, while the sixth cow is mother to twins. When plenty of food is available, moose often have twins. But due to the large moose population within the municipality, willows -- the preferred food for moose -- are so picked over they appear badly broken and are stunted. That's a sign habitat is degraded, Sinnott said.

Each year hundreds of calves are born among the municipality's estimated moose population of 1,500 to 2,000 moose.

Aside from calving, Sinnott's main interest is to learn how much time moose spend in the city proper and how much inside Chugach State Park. For years it was assumed that moose spent winters in town to avoid deep mountain snow, then moved back up into the park during the summer.

All of the moose in the study were captured and collared either inside the park or on the east side of town, since those moose are most likely to roam between the park and urban greenbelts and neighborhoods. So far, Sinnott has found that some moose follow the expected pattern, summering in the park. But other moose appear to spend most of their time in town.

''It's complicated,'' Sinnott said.

Moose cows tend to have smaller ranges than bulls, perhaps because cows move less once their calves are born. As expected, the moose also move around less from January to March.

The ranges of Anchorage moose are similar in size to those of moose in rural areas, Sinnott said, but the habitat is markedly different.

''You see a moose that moves from the Elmendorf PX all the way to Flattop,'' he said. ''Think of how many roads that moose has to cross.''

Sinnott has found that the bulls in his study tend to rut in town in the fall, head up to the mountains before the snow arrives, and then head back into town for the winter.

The study moose don't seem to have discrete mating areas, with one moose rutting in several different locations in one season. The cows, however, have so far had their calves within a half mile of where calves were born the year before.

Since the study began, wolves have killed one moose while wolf-dog hybrids contributed to another moose's death, according to Sinnott. Another was hit by a car, while another apparently fell and got trapped by a log. The cause of the fifth death was unknown. One bull moose slipped out of its collar.

On Thursday, Sinnott began his field day by searching for a cow inside Chugach park. Moose No. 10 was easy to find. Her signal led Sinnott straight to a clumpy meadow. There the moose stood with her calf at the edge of the clearing.

Sinnott climbed on top of a tree stump and waited for her to move to see if she had a second calf. The moose watched him, pricking her ears at each noise -- a plane, a dog barking, someone in the neighborhood shouting.

''No human is as patient as a moose,'' Sinnott said as he waited to get a better view.

Eventually, the moose shifted her position and Sinnott could clearly see through binoculars that, like the other cow, she had just one calf.

Being an urban biologist means constant interruptions. As Sinnott drove slowly through neighborhood streets holding the radio antenna outside the window and listening for clicks, his cellphone rang and rang. Once, someone wanted to know how to build a bear-proof fence. Another time a state legislator reporting a collared moose in his neighborhood.

''Are you the biologist Rick?'' asked one elderly woman. She asked him to lecture her neighbor for leaving out his trash, because a black bear had been hanging around the neighborhood. She said she had seen one of the moose wearing a yellow radio collar.

''I thought at first it had a kid's yellow swimming pool around his neck,'' she said.



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