Seeing the sighs
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors March–April 2017 issue
After all the slicing and dicing and studying of wildlife, along comes an animal or two that defies expectations, showing us we really don’t know it all.
Recently two cow moose, radio-collared on the Rocky Mountain Front as part of a ten-year population study, displayed a wanderlust that confounded Nick De-Cesare, research wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
“We’ve seen local migrations, but nothing like these two,” DeCesare says.
One cow moose took off during the summer of 2015 from the Pine Butte Swamp west of Choteau and strolled to Fresno Reservoir, west of Havre. That’s a straight-line distance of about 110 miles—even longer “as the moose walks.” By fall of 2015, the five-year-old animal had returned to Pine Butte Swamp and has not left since.
Then, last summer, a different cow moose—age three—took off west from the Rocky Mountain Front. She crossed the Continental Divide, walked through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and ended up on the Clark Fork River near Anaconda.
Later that fall, she headed back east, crossing the Divide near Roger’s Pass, spent time in front yards around Fairfield, then headed north past Choteau. De-Cesare says she is still on the move and is now in southeastern Alberta, having traveled 400 miles so far.
AAA couldn’t have come up with a more scenic trip. “Most moose don’t move around a lot,” DeCesare says. “In fact, many spend the entire year in an area covering only a few square miles.”
DeCesare notes that bachelor males occasionally take some very long hikes. For instance, every few years a moose or two shows up in Iowa, having strayed several hundred miles south from northern Minnesota or even Canada. One made it as far south as Texas. “But to see that kind of movement with a cow moose is far less common,” he says.
Of the 105 moose radio-collared in DeCesare’s study, only the two cows have ranged widely.
DeCesare looks at what drives moose populations in three areas of the state: the Cabinet Mountains, the Big Hole, and the Rocky Mountain Front.
Lots of problems in the moose population have claimed lots of headlines recently. “In other parts of the world, moose face challenges of predation, lack of nutrition, parasites and diseases, and climate effects,” DeCesare says.
Though FWP has conducted some local studies on Montana’s moose population—in the Yaak Valley in the 1980s and in the Ruby Range and Tobacco Root Mountains during the 1960s and ’70s—the department has never before taken a comprehensive look at the state’s population.
Now four years into his study, DeCesare can say that each of the three research populations is different, for different reasons.
Adult female survival in the Cabinet population is strong, but the percentage of calves surviving one year, called recruitment, is below average. Predation may play a role. Overall, that population is steady.
Cow moose survival in the Big Hole is down, possibly from parasites and disease, but recruitment is good.
“The Front is one of the few places in the state with a growing population,” DeCesare says. “That population has really high productivity, survival of adult cows, and recruitment.”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe the neighborhood just got too crowded for the two females, and they started looking for new addresses, perhaps a fixer-upper.
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all,” DeCesare says.
Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.
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