March 2, 2012


Yesterday morning I found myself making a decision that I really had not been expecting. Which, I pondered, would be a more effective defensive weapon if a moose charged me – a large orange plastic shovel or a smaller metal sidewalk scraper? Needless to say, this was not quite how I had envisioned my morning of housesitting and jury duty going. When I let the dog out moments before, he disappeared into the darkness barking hysterically. I peered after him to discover that he and the neighbor’s dog (a fractious animal over which I can exert no control) were dancing just out of reach of a young moose that was standing in the driveway. Standing, incidentally, between me and the barn, where I needed to go to feed the horses, who were tense and wheezing with fright. The moose was agitated, turning to face the dogs, hair raised on its back, pacing the churned up snow near the barn door.  I managed to recall my dog and get him safely in the house. The neighbor’s dog continued to caper gleefully, ignoring my shouting completely, until the moose charged her, which sent her dashing towards the protection of the house, where I was able to grab her and shove her inside. The moose put on the brakes, slip-sliding on the icy driveway, before it lost its footing entirely and fell heavily on its hindquarters. It stood and looked at me for a long moment, then turned and began walking slowly back towards the barn. The barn to which I needed to go.

Bull moose in Chugach State Park, AK. photo credit wikimedia commons
Moose (Alces alces) are big. Very big. There’s just no denying that. The Alaskan sub-species, Alces alces gigas, with which I am most familiar, is the largest. They easily stand six feet tall at the shoulder, weigh well over a thousand pounds, and a large male’s rack can stretch six feet across. Their legs are long and powerful, their necks massive. The moose before me that morning was small, perhaps only five-and-half-feet at the shoulder, no more than a year old, and skinny. Nevertheless, it was easily many times my weight and strength. People usually use words like “majestic” to describe the moose, rather than “elegant” or “beautiful.” They are the largest and least lissome of the deer family. To me, however they are neither beautiful nor ugly but apposite. They fit in to their environment, both literally and figuratively, in way that just makes sense. Despite their large size, they are surprisingly good at blending in. Many a time I can remember peering into the woods off the back deck, trying to see what the dogs were seeing. Then – there! for an instant as it took a step – the large dark form of a moose would become clear. As soon as it stopped, however, you had to know just where to look to see the white legs, the hump of the shoulder, the swiveling ears. Their size and shape allows them to browse high up on trees, reach down to pond bottoms for aquatic plants, and fend off wolf attacks. And too they hold a proud place among the arrary of northern megafauna – grizzly, dall sheep, caribou, musk ox, king salmon –  big animals for big country.

While the moose in the driveway was inconvenient, it was not really all that surprising. South-central Alaska has had a year of deep snows –Anchorage has gotten around nine feet – and the four feet or so that has been consistently on the ground since December is enough to pose a serious challenge to the local moose. In an attempt to find shallower snow and better forage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley moose population has moved en masse down to lower elevations and thus into closer proximity with people. A degree of this seasonal movement is typical, but this year the trend is extreme. They have become a more-than-common sight next to roads, in yards, and on the river flats. One made it three stories up an Anchorage hospital’s parking garage and nearly wandered into the foyer before being stopped by a security guard:  

photo credit Leslie Bagley, ADN
By halfway through the winter, the number of moose killed by trains and cars surpassed last year’s levels – 270 in an average year, with at least 400 already lost this year -- and many more are destined to starve unseen. The Alaska Moose Federation has secured approval and funding to attempt to lure moose away from roadways with feeding stations, as well as dart and relocate animals away from roads and traintracks out to more remote areas. This has come under criticism from some residents and biologists, who see this as a waste of money, a mixed message to the public about feeding wildlife, and potentially even harmful for the animals, as feeding moose is not as simple as it might seem.

While their summer diet consists of a wide variety of plant life, as befits an animal of their bulk, they survive the winter eating, essentially, wood (they primarily browse the buds and twigs of willow, birch, cottonwood, aspen, and other trees and shrubs). The microbiology of their rumens shifts seasonally in response to their diet, so by midwinter, the wood-digesting gut-fauna dominates alsmost exclusively. So even if they found more calorically-rich food, they would be unable to digest it – one reason why it is against Alaska state law to feed a moose. Moose have starved to death with innards stuffed full of hay, and I was worried that hay was what had attracted this moose to the barn area.

Moose-browsed shrubs and saplings showing evidence of repeated heavy browsing. photos by author

Combine all this – deep snow, high browsing pressure, and the energy needed to maintain a large warm body available only from frozen twigs, and you have moose that are on the edge, calorically and behaviorally. As the risk run by expending energy grows – one strenuous escape from a predator could spell death – “fight” starts to look a lot better than “flight.” Energy-stressed moose are more belligerent and aggressive, refusing to yield cleared or packed ground for deeper powder, and are more likely to charge nearby dogs, cars, and people. It was with this in mind that I surveyed the shovel and the sidewalk scraper. While the shovel might be more visually intimidating, its flimsy construction unnerved me – I decided that, if worse came to worse, a whack to the face from the sidwalk scraper might make the moose think twice – although last month one tiny 85 year old woman used a grain shovel to sucessfully beat off an enraged moose that was stomping her husband. Taking her courage as an example, I walked slowly towards the barn, hugging the snow berm for protection, talking calmly to the moose and holding the sidewalk scraper horizontally to look bigger. The moose continued to mosey (they seem to have two gears: incredibly fast, and mosey) on down past the barn and disappeared into the stunted brush behind it. Suddenly I could breathe again; grateful that this encounter had gone smoothly for moose and human alike. 


Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Moose Species Profile.

Boots, Michelle. “State OKs group's plan to drug, relocate roadside moose.” Anchorage Daily News, February 29th, 2012

Demer, Lisa. “85-year-old woman wields shovel to stop moose stomping.” Anchorage Daily News, January 23rd, 2012

Joling, Dan. “Alaska approves moose relocation away from roads.” Anchorage Daily News, February 28th, 2012

Klouda, Naomi. “No muffins – or hay – for moose.” Homer Tribune, February 3rd, 2010.

Sinnott, Rick. “Feeding hungry moose is a fundraising bonanza.” Alaska Dispatch, February 29th 2012.

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