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Where have all the moose gone?

Join on of our wildlife photo tours into Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone, and Jackson Hole.

Driving north from the town of Jackson toward Moran junction in winter used to be a sure fire way to see moose. It was not unusual to see dozens of them grazing on the sage flats around the airport and laying around in the Gros Ventre river bottom. Moose were everywhere! That was five years ago.

Today you can take that same drive and not see a single moose. Look a little harder and you might find one or two tucked away in the willows along the Gros Ventre river or in somebody’s yard but they are not nearly as abundant or visible as they used to be. The declining moose population is well documented, easily noticed and has been studied to exhaustion by both government biologists and graduate students. Despite the attention, there have been no clear answers and a lot of debate.

One theory suggests that the moose had overpopulated Jackson Hole and ate themselves out of house and home by reducing their preferred browse in the valley like bitterbrush and willow. The problem with this theory is that there hasn’t been a noticeable reduction in their preferred browse that would cause such a significant decline. Another possible scenario being considered was that a new disease was affecting the population and increasing mortality in the Jackson area. Despite a lot of effort to find the mystery disease, no such pathogen was found and the hunt for the cause continued.

Some suggest that wolves are to blame but they can’t be totally responsible since the moose population had already been dropping precipitously well before the first reintroduced wolf wandered back into the valley in the late 90’s. What could cause the sudden decline of a well established prey species in a county where 97% of the land is protected by the federal government? A better understanding of history and context might shed some light on the subject.

When Lewis and Clark came west in 1804 one of their missions was to document and catalog everything they found along the way. Though there were a couple mentions of the expedition seeing moose along the way, they didn’t see many and those they did see might have actually been mule deer. Though they didn’t come through Jackson Hole, their accounts of pre-settlement flora and fauna in the west help us understand how things have changed since whites began settling the area. One of the biggest changes was a dramatic reduction in predator populations like bears, mountain lions and wolves. Through trapping, hunting and poisoning white settlers successfully removed or reduced predators from the west in an attempt to ‘tame’ the wilderness. Grizzly populations were reduced to near extinction and wolves were completely exterminated from the Greater Yellowstone area.

Without predators, Jackson Hole, once marginal moose habitat, became a place where moose could thrive. Prior to 1912 there were few, if any Moose, in Jackson Hole. By the mid 1960’s there were around 250 moose living year-round in the valley and by 1993 the Jackson moose herd had reached it’s peak of an estimated 3000-4000 animals. This rapid success into a new habitat certainly changed the landscape but I doubt that this alone would lead to a 75% decline in valley moose in under two decades. It is likely that something else changed the game for moose in Jackson Hole.

That something weighs 350-600 lbs, runs up to 40 mph, shares the same habitat as moose and has been moving back into Jackson Hole since the early 1990’s. Grizzly Bears, once relegated to feeding on trash and handouts in Yellowstone, have made an amazing comeback since their near extinction from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. After being protected from hunting in 1975 their population has soared and they have been spreading out in search of new territory and food sources. Though grizzlies will predate moose, especially the calves, the real problem for moose is just their presence. Grizzlies spend a lot of time in river bottoms and meadows in search of food and will graze on many of the same plants that moose rely on. This added stress pushes moose to the margins of their habitat and decreases the time they can spend feeding in a given area. Decreased caloric intake through the summer and fall leads moose into winter in poor shape and decreases their chances of survival and reproduction.

I believe that the moose herd had probably overpopulated the valley around 1992 which, with the help of steadily increased hunting quotas, lead to their population to begin a decline. At the same time, Grizzlies began to move back into the valley and created a new stress that displaced them from some of their prime summer range. Finally, wolves returned to Jackson Hole adding a critical nail to the coffin of moose ever recovering to anywhere near pre-predator numbers.

In the last few years the winter distribution of moose in the valley has changed significantly concurrent with a dramatic increase in wolf activity. According to Teton National Park there are now over 60 wolves in 5 packs whose territory extends into Jackson Hole. As a wildlife photographer and guide I have noticed the change in moose numbers and distribution and the increase in wolf sightings on our safaris. Like the grizzly bear, the wolves aren’t necessarily killing a lot of adult animals. Instead they will opportunistically kill calves and through their presence add another stress that impedes feeding and rest; both critical for moose to survive the harsh Wyoming winters.

There is no doubt that predators are probably the main factor in the decline of the Jackson moose herd. Though depredation is certainly a part of the puzzle, I believe that stress and the interruption of grazing is a larger factor based on my time observing moose, grizzlies and wolves.

One positive change for the moose of Jackson Hole is people and the protection from predators that we provide. If you want to see moose you will find them in the neighborhoods on the west bank of the Snake river, the backyards in Wilson and even laying around in the town of Jackson. Moose have learned that people aren’t a threat and that grizzlies and wolves tend to avoid contact with humans. One study even showed cow moose in Grand Teton National Park moving closer to roads to birth and raise their calves once grizzlies moved into their area. The predator prey relationship is complex, ever changing and certainly includes us. Though we try to act like an observer there is no doubt that we are a participant.


5 Comments

  1. Jason, I don’t debate at all the documented decline in the moose population throughout the Jackson Hole area. But last summer my wife and I spent three months as campground hosts at Lizard Creek campground in GTNP and got lot of close up and personal time observing the wildlife. We saw moose all over the park and outside the park throughout the summer. We saw them at the usual locations (Wilson Rd, the willows along the Gros Ventre River, the bridge at the Moose entrance to the park. But we also saw one in Yellowstone, many different ones around the oxbow, along the Snake toward Alpine, in Moran, Dubois, on the way to Dubois, Colter Bay, Grassy Lake Rd, Pacific Creek…in general, pretty much everywhere we went we saw moose, and not the same ones over and over. Maybe we were just lucky, but we definitely saw them wherever we went and at the most unexpected times. We saw calves, cows, cows with calves, old mature bulls, young bulls, little bulls with little bumps on their heads, yearling cows. Sometimes three at a time, but usually one at a time or two if it was a cow and calf. So, I don’t doubt the documented decline, but they are still out there. It does seem the predators are having an effect on their population and especially on the elk population. We saw lots of grizzlies in the Lizard Creek area and all around GTNP, and talked to rangers about all the wolves and their impact on elk and young moose. We also noticed and agree with what you point out in your blog – that an important impact on the elk and moose activity is the interruption of their grazing patterns by predators. We saw plenty of that, too.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your insight! It is a hot issue for sure. The official estimate of the population decline in the northern Jackson Hole herd is 75% since the mid 90’s. We are having more Grizzly sightings this year than moose. A few years ago we almost never saw grizzlies in Teton Park – today it is a daily occurrence. On top of that we personally know of two moose calves predated by grizzlies – that’s the ones we have seen from the road. Don’t think that we don’t like bears though – they are my favorite animals to watch and photograph! Are you guys here this year?

      Jason

  2. Val Walker

    I can’t imagine any person who would truly believe that sightings of Moose by the Lewis and Clark party were probably mule deer instead. Did they see any wolves? Perhaps they what they thought were wolves were in reality foxes. Did they see any Hare? If so, perhaps it they actually saw were deer mice instead. Please, those people were experienced outdoorsmen and would not mistake a deer for a moose.

    • Val – your point is well taken but remember the language barrier and use of different nomenclature in that time period. Moose are in fact the largest member of the dear family so were sometimes referred to as a type of deer. Even today our European guests sometimes confuse Elk and Moose as an Elk in Europe is what we call a moose. Thanks for the insight.

      Jason

  3. Jason,
    I fully agree with your observations. I just returned from 5 days in GTNP where we go every August or September. We saw moose in a few of the usual places but not in others. My favorite has been seeing young bulls cross Cottonwood Creek while I was fishing or the big majestic bulls in Oxbow while kayaking.
    This year we saw one lone cow at the ponds next to the Wilson road where we typically see a couple of cows and a calf or two. Despite trying several times, we never did spot Jesus or John Lennon near the Moose WY bridge although we heard they are still there. I hiked up to see the two bulls above Jenny Lake, at the top of the horse trail near Inspiration Point. We did not explore the ponds above Lupine Meadows this year but will next time.
    The big surprise though has been Oxbow. From 2000 to 2008 we always saw several either on the Cattlemen’s road, in the water grazing or near the main turnout. The last 2 years though we have not see any at Oxbow, but hear they have moved up Signal Mountain. I cannot help but wonder if the presence of the 2 sow grizzlies (known as #399 and #610) and the cubs have had anything to do with the moose leaving the Oxbow area. Thanks for the great work.

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