Study compares stress in urban moose with that of their country cousins

Posted: Wednesday, November 29, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Anchorage moose may seem at ease munching willows in Kincaid Park or strolling suburban streets, but science suggests the city moose live with twice the stress as their rural counterparts.

What's more, a study examining the levels of stress hormone in moose poop concluded that moose in Kincaid Park were the most anxiety-ridden of three groups studied in Anchorage.

The least stressed, surprisingly, were the Midtown moose.

The study was done by Martha Tomeo, then a graduate student at Alaska Pacific University. She measured levels of a stress hormone known as glucocorticoids in moose droppings collected the winter before last at five Alaska locations: Peters Creek near Trapper Creek, inside Denali National Park and Preserve, and at three spots in Anchorage: Kincaid, near the Prospect Heights trail head parking lot on the Hillside, and at Midtown Park.

''It's pretty interesting that these levels were so high for urban moose,'' Tomeo said. ''We see moose all the time, and most of the time they seem calm. But the overt behavior doesn't always match what it going on internally.''

Tomeo said it's hard to draw precise conclusions from the study, because the environment is different in each location. But one guess is that skiers or runners zooming past may cause more stress to the Kincaid moose than the constant roar of traffic, which Midtown moose might consider background noise.

''This is a baseline effort to examine the issue,'' Tomeo said. ''The results have really interesting implications.''

Tomeo admits her study has limitations. Ideally, she would have had larger sample sizes and more groups of moose to compare, she said, and more information about what the animals eat and what kinds of interactions they have with humans, predators or other animals.

''There definitely needs to be more research,'' said Rick Sinnott, Anchorage-area biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

The Anchorage data surprised him, he said. He would have expected the opposite, that the Kincaid moose would be the least stressed and Midtown the most. ''I've spent a lot of time around Kincaid, and it's not a particularly stressful place, especially compared to C Street,'' he said.

Sinnott said the density of moose in each location should be considered. Aside from a patch of particularly good habitat by Service High School, Kincaid probably has the highest density of moose in Anchorage, he said. Midtown has the lowest of the three locations Tomeo sampled.

The study, funded by The Mountaineers Foundation and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, originally was meant to look at whether snowmachines stress moose. The study did find that the stress hormone levels in moose from Peters Creek, a popular riding area, were higher than those in moose from the old part of Denali National Park, where snowmachining is not allowed. But Tomeo said the differences are small compared with those between urban and rural moose or even between the different Anchorage locations.

''I can't point a finger at snowmachines,'' she said.

Alliance director Paul Joslin said he thinks snowmachines might still be the reason. He would like to see more studies done to see if it makes sense to limit riding when the snow is deep and moose are naturally stressed.

It's not known how stress affects moose. Sinnott said Anchorage moose appear to be healthy.

''Urbanites have higher stress levels, too, but that doesn't stop 265,000 people from living in Anchorage,'' he said.

Tomeo used a technique pioneered by Sam Wasser, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She collected and freeze-dried the moose nuggets and sent them to Seattle to be tested for glucocorticoids.

Kathleen Hunt, a researcher who works with Wasser, said the technique has been used for more than a decade. She said she and Wasser have used it to study stress in dozens of species, from wild African elephants to northern spotted owls. They found that owls living near roads have more stress.

The fecal matter doesn't smell as much when freeze dried, but Hunt said it still can be a stinky job. The worst she's worked with is sea lion poop, though Wasser ranks coyote dung the smelliest.

While this is the first time the technique has been used on Alaska moose, a Fish and Game biologist at Soldotna is using the method to find out if moose living in poorer habitat have higher stress, Hunt said.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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