It was mid-March as I slowed to a crawl on the snow-crusted back road. The snow piled high on either side high from a winter’s worth of plowing. I strained to see over the berm, looking for the cow moose I knew was there, to see if there was sign that the animal had moved in the 12 hours since I had seen her that morning.
The moose was still there, but her head was no longer erect, and she lay on her side, not moving. Binoculars confirmed the rhythmic expansion and collapsing of her chest, the only sign she was still alive. I had watched this moose for several seasons — a split on one of her ears distinguished her from the numerous other cow moose in the area. Two seasons before she raised a bull calf, but now she was alone and appeared to be dying.
A few weeks before, the big cow had isolated herself in a small area not far from the road. The eaten-down, sparse browse told the story: The deep snow had taken its toll, and she was unable to travel to better feed. A week before, someone had cut down a large birch tree close to where the moose now seemed to reside. She had moved to the tree and had been there ever since, eating from the upper branches made available. But it wasn’t enough, and her weight loss was visible day to day.
For most Alaskans, March is the month of re-birth. Increasing daylight and higher temperatures promise that once again we’ve made it through the winter. It’s my favorite time of year to take the setters into the high country. Bright sunny days are a time to lay on the mountain snowpack, as if it were on a beach in Hawaii.
It’s a life-embracing time, one you would expect would be the same for wildlife. For some it is, but not so much for moose.
Seeing these healthy, robust giants roaming the countryside in summer and fall, it’s difficult to imagine how a creature so well equipped to survive a harsh environment can be reduced to the appearance of the starving horse depicted in old western cartoons.
During the summer and fall, when forage is abundant, an adult moose will consume some 50 to 60 pounds of vegetation per day. Even in areas where the habitat is less than ideal, they make a decent living off the variety of vegetation available in warm months.
Once the aquatic feeding areas freeze up, things become markedly more difficult. Early and deep snowfall finds them burning more fuel than they can find to consume in areas of minimal habitat. Even during winters with minimal snowfall, some moose have a difficult time.
Over the past 40-plus years, there have only been a few in which I haven’t found moose starved to death in March and early April.
It is always a good idea to avoid disturbing moose in the wild, but in winter, when they are startled or feel in danger, and they run, they are burning calories they cannot afford to burn. They begin to come out to trails and roads, using them to conserve energy when moving to feed areas.
Moose are generally gentle giants, except for cows with calves and bulls in the breeding season. They are rather docile and tolerant of people, dogs, traffic, etc. A moose encountered on a trail in the summer will probably amble off the trail. During a hard winter, they are as apt to stand their ground and will even charge. Best for them and the person to pull back and go around to avoid a close encounter.
We live in a rural area and have numerous moose around most of the time. During the summer and fall, they feed along the fence line of our dog pen. Often, they are nose-to-nose with the setters, who bark and carry on like idiots. The moose seem not to care in the least.
A couple of years ago a cow that visited often gave birth to her calf no more than 50 yards from the dog pen. After a couple of weeks, she brought the calf around and the dogs would run back and forth with the little moose, like kids playing in the schoolyard.
In the summer we can walk around with little concern that they are there. Winter is a different story. By late February, when they come through to browse whatever is available, they get testy. I’ve had them charge me in the yard, and I take caution going around corners and such lest I run into one too close. Last year, the setters barked at a young cow passing through and she charged the fence, hitting it a couple of times. Of course, the setters are clueless of the danger and enjoy the ruckus they cause.
More than anything, it is heartbreaking to watch moose suffer the tough times. There is little one can do, because it’s illegal to feed them for a variety of reasons. Our property, which was at one time horse pasture, is now grown up in tall, thin birch trees. We thin them out to allow for new growth for the moose, and we do it at the end of February when the tops of the birch provide some forage. It isn’t much but it is something, and it feels good to help them out a bit.
The drive home after seeing the old cow so helpless was bittersweet. The moose wouldn’t make it more than a day or two more, but then her suffering would be over.
It was still dark the next morning when I checked on my way to work. The dark form in the snow was motionless. Looking through the light-gathering binoculars, I could see her head was at an odd angle, something wasn’t right. I stomped my way out to her lifeless form to find that someone, perhaps the person who had cut the birch tree down, couldn’t take her suffering anymore and had put the moose out of its misery, an illegal act.
As I drove slowly away, I didn’t condone what had happened, but I did understand it. The often-perceived utopian existence of animals in the wild is anything but, and when observed that closely and that personally, it can be overwhelming. It’s a reminder that life in the wild can be as brutal as it is beautiful — and that for some wildlife, March may not be a life-embracing month.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan who lives in Kenai.