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Alaska moose myths and fairytales, debunked

Craig Medred
National Park Service photo

Moose in Alaska are having a tough winter, as they often do, and now it has become some sort of dark, national fairy tale. Fairy tale, of course, being the only way to describe a quote-unquote "news report'' from the Associated Press now circulating.

Can you say lamestream?

Where to begin? With the many subtle errors of clueless reportage or the big ones?

Oh, let's start with the big ones: "The Alaska Moose Federation also received a permit from the state to set up hay feeding stations to keep moose away from roads and rail lines."

The Moose Federation did get a permit, but was specifically told not to feed hay. Why? Because hay has been documented as a problem for moose. It gives them, according to one study, problems that may lead "to chronic/diarrhea wasting disease."

If you have hungry moose around, please do not feed them hay.

Berms not so bad

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game told the Moose Federation it could feed "haylage,'' a fermented product something like silage. Better yet, suggested state officials, cut down willow, aspen and cottonwood trees to provide moose the woody twigs on which they’ve been browsing all winter. Moose are ruminants. They have a complicated, four-part stomach that allows them to digest a variety of vegetation, but it digests best that to which the animal's intestinal bacteria has seasonally adapted. At the moment, that bacteria is adapted to processing woody fiber, which brings us to another lamestream mistake:

"Still unmelted are large snow piles, which have been the bane for moose this year."

Actually, the reality is the opposite. The large snow piles, what Alaskans call roadside "berms" have in many cases been a big plus for moose. Road graders compacted this snow as they pushed it off the roads. The moose can walk atop it. Many climb up on it to get at the edible ends of tree branches normally out of reach. Strange as it might sound, urban moose are actually somewhat better off in winter than their wild cousins. "Snow piles'' aren't the problem; overall snow depth is the problem.

Once the snow gets belly deep on any deer -- moose being one -- moving around in search of food becomes a tough, labor-intensive business. Try it yourself some time. You burn a lot of calories trudging through deep snow. Moose do not have a lot of calories to waste in any winter. Their diet of twiggy browse is a starvation diet. Couple a starvation diet with the need to burn a lot of extra calories, and it's obvious you're in trouble.

Take to the ridges

Which is why in a winter like the one from which Alaska is just beginning to emerge, moose in the wilderness tend to cluster in areas where food is available, not where the terrain looks friendliest, as some apparently believe:

"Winters are normally hard for ungulates but this year with how deep the snow is and how cold it's been, they have had difficulty getting around," said Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters. "When they finally find a place that's flat, that they can easily walk through, they tend to stick there and have easy access to the food."

Peters is a spokeswoman for a state law enforcement agency. She knows as much about moose as the average Alaskan sitting in the average Alaskan bar. She should have had the sense to refer a reporter to someone who knows moose. And she obviously hasn't been out and around enough in Southcentral Alaska these days to notice that for a moose, there are very few places, except for the aforementioned roads, "that they can easily walk through.''

Among the few places they can "easily walk through" are the windswept ridges of the Chugach Mountains above Alaska's largest city. There are places now where moose can be found acting a little like Dall sheep. They've gone up instead of down because there are willows up high which have been swept bare of snow and for the moose its all about food and snow depth -- not flat. Or cold.

Can you believe this? Moose actually thrive in parts of Interior Alaska where temperatures can drop to minus-60 F. It NEVER gets that cold in the Anchorage area. The record cold for Anchorage is minus-38 F.

How to define record?

But wait, there's more, as there usually is when the media starts hyping things. The Moose Federation is trying to raise money for its cause. Thus it is pushing the tough-winter aspect of the moose story. And in the press-release, spokesman/spokewsoman-driven world of news today, too many reporters are willing to go along for the ride:

"Already this year, there's been 455 moose killed in the (Mantanuska-Susitna) borough ... topping the previous record of 387 kills in 2003-04."

Yes, indeed, a lot of moose have been killed by motor vehicles, many of them driven by inattentive drivers, in what Alaskans call "the Valley.'' But that might be expected, given that the moose population in and around the Wasilla-Palmer, urban core of the Valley is at a record high. There about 8,000 moose there now, up from about 6,500 in the winter of 2003-2004. So let's see: Motor vehicles took out 5.9 percent of the moose population in '03-04, and so far this winter they've taken out 5.6 percent of the moose population.

Hmmm: "...It's been a record-breaking year in the Mat-Su Borough.''

Indeed, it has. But it sort of depends on how you define the record. Then again, a lot of this business of journalism depends on how you define things:

"Trudging through deep snow and then protecting a food site have made moose highly agitated this year. 'They're tired, they're hungry, they're cranky,' said Peters. 'It doesn't take much for them to decide to stand their ground and protect the areas where they're comfortable.'"

Well, sort of. Moose are not bears. They are not known for "protecting a food site.'' They are known for being cranky. Sometimes they are cranky when tired, sometimes when hungry, sometimes when breeding, sometimes when with young, sometimes for no reason at all. But standing their ground thing often isn't about crankiness or protecting anything; it's about evolution.

Moose want to stay where they feel safe. They have evolved in a world where they have to survive the risks of being eaten by wolves and bears. If they are standing on a firmly packed trail, they can use their front feet to try to fend off predators. If they get off a firm trail into deep, soft snow, they are far more vulnerable to attack.

You decide. If you were a moose, and your only defense was your feet (which, by the way, have killed several Anchorage residents over the years), what would you do?

Stay on the trail where you can use your feet to defend yourself, or retreat into neck deep snow where a wolf or a bear (or maybe a crazed human with a spear) can jump on your back and start ripping out chunks of flesh?

"'I've avoided the trails because of the moose," (Peters) said. "I got a gym membership this year.'

"(Fish and Game’s Anchorage-area biologist Jessy) Coltrane says she doesn't see the human-moose encounters as being any worse this year than any other.''

Ah yes, the essence of 21st century reporting. This is what is considered "balance.'' The random comment of someone who knows little about moose is followed by 
the observation of someone who knows a good deal about moose and spends many winter days dealing with moose. Which to believe?

Is there a story?

OK, OK. It's a better story if the big, bad, scary moose are keeping people in the gym.

Let's go with Peters and throw Coltrane in as after thought. You know, for "balance.'' Sort of like the final lines of that nationally circulating story.

"In heavy snow years, wildlife officials say there tends to be a lot of moose dying of starvation, but this year appears different. 'We haven't seen a whole lot of moose dropping dead in town. It doesn't seem to be higher than average,' Coltrane said."

So the story of the moment is that moose AREN'T having as tough of a winter as everyone thought despite the record snow? Can't be. What the hell kind of story would that make?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com