KENAI NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — At sunrise, two biologists stood on a metal rooftop and scoped a frosty wooded landscape deep in the woods north of Sterling. It was pin-drop quiet when they spotted two cow moose in tall golden grasses along a fence line, and another close by.
Then, a clatter and rumble, the snapping of twigs, the swishing of leaves and the thunk of antlers cut through the brisk air. Dan Thompson, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, identified the source before he could see the 1,400-pound bull. That’s Flash, he said. The biologists and two student technicians moved down the ladder and into the nearby woods for a closer look.
This fall, the team is observing some of the 16 moose now kept at Fish and Game’s Kenai Moose Research Center, a facility that opened more than a half-century ago to grow the body of knowledge about the large, iconic mammals. Here, in a set of pens covering 4 square miles, biologists, academics, technicians, students and volunteers conduct research while allowing the animals to live lives that, in many ways, resemble those of their wild counterparts.
The facility, unique in the world of moose research, has proven valuable. Science done at the Kenai Moose Research Center has contributed to hundreds of published studies since it opened, according to Fish and Game biologist John Crouse, who has directed it since 2009. This season, the center is carrying out a Norwegian university doctoral project that aims to pinpoint the length of moose gestation.
That’s where Flash comes in. The bull, deep in the throes of his fall hormonal peak, plowed violently through spindly trees inside the “rut pen.” He tilted his head from side to side to parade his impressive antlers, croaking in rhythm. Flash’s job is to breed with some or all of the six cows in the pen, and his behavior indicated he was ready to do his part. If only the cows in the rut pen felt the same that day.
One of a kind
The Kenai Moose Research Center now keeps 11 cows and five bulls on its tract, located 35 miles down an unpaved road north of the Sterling Highway. The numbers fluctuate. The animals, named and identifiable to staff by the colored tape they put on their collars, are kept within 16 miles of fencing, divided among four 1-square-mile enclosures. The bulls and cows live apart, aside from breeding efforts. Moose Center moose live their lives inside its fences. None are released.
The facility, which also includes a laboratory, two cabins and a few other buildings, is staffed by two Fish and Game biologists and one technician. They aren’t always there, but often spend days-long stints on site when the research calls for it.
The center was built in the late 1960s on what was then the Kenai National Moose Range, which became the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in 1980. It was born as a jointly-operated state and federal project because land managers wanted better information to manage Alaska’s wild moose, Crouse said. Now, Fish and Game primarily conducts the center’s research work with assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the facility operating.
Biologists then, as now, looked at health, reproduction and vegetation needs. “It’s just gotten more focused,” Crouse said. “Still a lot of the same questions, but it’s gotten more refined as technology’s changed and as we’ve learned.”
Another priority now is to develop information-gathering techniques that Fish and Game can adapt for use in the wild, using animals bred, born and handled on site.
“As we’ve gotten more detailed physiological-type measurements, it’s required tamer animals,” Crouse said.
Though the research center’s moose are habituated to human contact, that doesn’t mean the work is risk-free. Crouse said he has been chased over fences and behind trees numerous times, but he has learned the warning signs.
“Sometimes it can get a little tenuous. They’re still moose,” Crouse said. “People have tried to domesticate moose for hundreds of years without success.”
In the pens, the moose mostly browse for their nutrition on the forested land. The combination of tame and wild attributes is what makes the center such a valuable asset for scientists, the state biologists say. Crouse said captive moose elsewhere typically live 6 or 7 years. Moose at the center often live to the expectancy of wild moose: 14-15 years for males and 18-19 years for females.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind facility, and so we get interest from collaborators all over the world,” said Crouse as his pickup rumbled down the road toward the center. Crouse said research projects are generated both from within Fish and Game and externally by way of collaboration within the small world of moose researchers.
Crouse, 57, first started working with the center as a technician in 1997. He said that as a student he studied how the fat and protein makeup of moose related to reproductive success. One conclusion: Heavier and fatter moose tend to produce more calves. He has contributed to key studies on nutrient requirements and helped develop assessment techniques that are now used to gauge the condition of moose in the wild.
“That took a lot of detailed, not necessarily fun, work to come up with that,” he said.
Thompson, the center’s other Fish and Game biologist, had a hand in research that looked at moose heart rates, forage chemistry, the makeup of antlers and the effect of harassing insects, he said. His doctoral degree examined how changes in body temperature affect behaviors.
As he stood by Minnie, a 15-year-old female, Thompson said it’s rare to have research moose in such a setting. It had taken about a half-hour to track the moose down in the woods, using the ping of a VHF radio signal. Then came one of the less glorious moments that can be typical of research. Holding a stick with a cup at one end, Thompson followed behind Minnie for his chance to collect a urine sample. It’s a task that can take hours.
In addition to contributing to science, the small crew must keep the place running, mending fences, managing equipment, hauling supplies, coordinating visitors and more.
“More time than not, you’re more a glorified ranch hand than you are a biologist,” Thompson said. “That’s what it takes.”
Thompson also enjoys the animals, sometimes reaching to pat a moose’s back or rub its snout as he stands nearby.
“They’re kind of like your four-legged kids,” he said.
Research in a rut
After lunch in one of the cabins, the two biologists joined two technicians, both visiting students, for the second of three daily moose observation sessions. The subjects include Flash, the bull, and six cows — Cayenne, Roxanne, Shiner, Sky, Stella and Winnie — inside the 15-acre rut pen. The project also calls for urine to be collected from several other cows in an adjacent pen to measure a hormone related to ovulation. Babe, Vicky and Freya hung close to the bull on their side of the fence.
The unbridled vim of a rutting bull moose makes it far too dangerous for the researchers to be in the rut pen. But the human crew walked among the separated cows as they observed and made notes. At times, it was a symphony of bleats and whines from the cows.
The biologists say the female vocalizations are how they communicate sub-dominance. They jostled for position to be near Flash, sometimes pressing their noses through the fence and into his. Babe, a 4-year-old cow, seemed to have the ability to shoo the others from her favored spot. Her stomps and huffs sent Vicky and Freya scurrying.
“I don’t know how they’ve determined who’s the boss, but they’ve figured it out,” Crouse said.
The sight of the startled moose, enough to rightly make a pedestrian shudder in any other wild or urban situation, hardly fazed the staff. None were so much as clumsily bumped by the giant mammals they’ve handled since birth.
Their work feeds information to Lucie Lemiere, a doctoral student at Inland Norway University. Reached by email, Lemiere said the project aims to show thermal and activity patterns associated with estrus, a period of sexual receptivity, and document the exact gestation length of moose.
To do so, these moose are rigged up. Collars on the moose in the rut pen capture information about light, acceleration and their location. In their forestomach sits a rumen bolus, a remote data collection device that sends body temperature information to the collar. Each of the cows also has a pressure sensor attached to their hindquarters. In theory, when a bull mounts a cow, a trigger would send a timestamp to a nearby antenna and into a computer database.
“Ideally we’d see the bull mount the cow, but it happens a lot less often than we’d like,” Crouse said.
They do witness the amusing, sometimes bizarre, courtship rituals of the species. Earlier this season, Flash made use of a rut pit. That’s what it’s called when a bull scrapes a shallow hole in the dirt, urinates in it, then splashes and rolls in the muck. The scent creates an unambiguous positive reaction among females, Crouse said. “It’s like cologne,” he said.
Lemiere said the study could one day help biologists “identify the drivers of reproductive events in the wild and investigate the potential impacts of climate change on moose reproductive timing and success.”
Whatever conclusions are ultimately made, it did not appear the gestational clock started for next spring’s newborns on this day. Babe enjoyed some nose-pressing through the fence. Winnie, one of the cows in the pen with Flash, would often come in close contact, but she repeatedly ran off when the bull turned her way.
Lemiere said the moose research center offers an unparalleled chance to collect data that is very difficult to get in the wild. Without her partnership with the research center, it wouldn’t have been possible, she said.
“To my knowledge, there is no other center that houses so many individuals in such large enclosures in which they can express the entire spectrum of their natural behaviors,” she said.
Crouse said the creativity and collaboration required to conduct research is what makes his decades of work with moose so rewarding.
“I’m still learning about them,” he said, “trying to figure out what makes them work.”