Biologists get glimpse of secret lives of moose

Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Through frolic and mishap, these were very particular moose.

One cow took a grand tour around Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, then marched seven miles to the mountains in a one-day trek through Midtown traffic.

Another one spent months browsing near Oceanview, then sneaked up behind Glen Alps for mating season.

A pregnant moose, skinny and stressed, abandoned her winter home in the Sand Lake gravel pit during greenup, only to die on the bluff near Kincaid Park a few weeks later. Her nearly born calf died too.

These were among five animals fitted with radio collars and followed electronically for seven months this year. The results offered a glimpse into the secret lives of Anchorage's 1,000 urban moose.

The collars recorded the moose's locations every 4.5 hours. Biologists immobilized the animals with tranquilizer darts, recovered the collars and plotted the moose movements on maps of Anchorage.

They found that the animals didn't wander from place to place at random but tended to haunt certain greenbelts for weeks or months at a time, said Rick Sinnott, Anchorage area biologist for the Department of Fish and Game.

In general, they tried to avoid people, cars and dogs. When traveling, the moose often walked directly through miles of neighborhoods, across highways and commercial zones to reach favorite wild spots. Railroads, strip malls and divided highways didn't hinder them much.

''One of my theories is that pregnant cow moose return to the area where they were born,'' Sinnott said.

Sometimes they traveled back and forth between select woods or bogs, suggesting these urban-raised critters knew exactly where they were going and why.

''Are they there because that's where they found food? Or are they there because it gives them some sort of refuge from people and dogs?'' Sinnott said. ''It looks like in many cases, it's a combination.''

The study was launched last winter, when Sinnott and assistant state biologist Jessy Coltrane tranquilized the five cows and equipped them with tracking collars loaned from a study of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula.

Each device contained a global positioning system unit that took fixes off satellites and stored the surface coordinates in a tiny onboard computer. Each device also transmitted a radio signal that allowed the biologists to track down the animal later.

This fall, Sinnott and Coltrane spent weeks searching for the four remaining cows, sometimes spending several days stalking a single wily animal.

Before it snowed, they put new collars on the four moose, then caught and collared six more animals near Kincaid Park. The data from those will be retrieved and analyzed next year.

''They're already moving all over the place,'' Coltrane said.

Sinnott hopes the study will show which habitat Anchorage's moose like best and how their preferences change during the year. But the initial data, gathered in February, March, September and October, also opened a window on the lives of five specific animals.

Their experiences ranged from the seemingly hapless to shrewd. For instance, Moose 720 from the Sand Lake gravel pit made it through winter only to break her leg on a small drop-off just over the bluff near the coastal trail northwest of Kincaid Park.

Cow 240 had better luck. First caught behind homes near a hill in the Southport area, it gave birth to twins in Klatt Bog. Over spring and summer, it traveled between the bog and an impenetrable thicket along Campbell Creek, and did not seem fazed by traffic.

''She was zipping back and forth across Dimond Boulevard all summer,'' Sinnott said.

When the biologists retrieved the collar in September, they found the cow and a single surviving calf munching ornamental trees along 100th Avenue, apparently in good shape for the winter.

The other three were accomplished urban commuters. Moose 210 spent late winter along the Oceanview coast and near Potter Marsh. But it also made trips into the mountains overlooking Bear Valley and Rabbit Creek.

''She made a beeline to this area,'' Sinnott said. ''There's no doubt that's where she wanted to go for breeding.''

Moose 660 divided her time between Klatt Bog and a greenbelt near O'Malley Road. But it took a new calf on a three-day, seven-mile round trip to Campbell Creek and back in mid-July. Coltrane found them browsing on the Viewpoint Trail.

But the champion wanderer may be a yearling cow caught Feb. 21 along Old Klatt Road. For four months, the animal remained in the same area. Then the cow apparently felt an urge.

It sauntered up to the Hillside and then back to Klatt bog, then toward Kincaid Park and didn't stop for three days. It strolled along the Coastal Trail before moving for 22 hours in a straight line southeast toward Flattop. It spent the rest of the summer near Bear Valley.

What was it up to?

''She was footloose and fancy free,'' Sinnott said. ''She didn't have any calf tied to her apron strings, so she decided to go for a ramble.''



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