EAGLE COUNTY — Moose have been seen all over Eagle County, at Piney Lake, in Singletree, near Berry Creek Middle School, on the Vail Golf Course, and skiers have even dodged them on Vail Mountain. With spring in full swing, we are bound to have some sightings.
This animal is the largest member of the deer family and is found around the globe in the Northern Hemisphere. It is generally found in the northern parts of the continent, but it is unlikely that there was ever a breeding population of moose in the state of Colorado prior to their introduction, or reintroduction, beginning in 1978.
Reports of moose in the early history of Colorado may have been partly a confusion with names. The moose that we know (Alces alces) is called “elk” in Europe. The North American elk, or wapiti (Cervus canadensis), is a district species common in Colorado. It is very possible that there were people of European descent who saw what we know as moose and called them “elk” and others who saw elk and called them “moose.” Confused yet?
An Algonquin term refers to moose as “twig eater,” though some sources say it means “great wanderer.” Moose are browsers, they eat leaves and twigs of willows, softwood trees and shrubs. They are often seen standing in ponds consuming aquatic plants like water lilies. In the winter, the moose survives on twigs and bark of various shrubs and trees.
Reintroduction in Colorado
Though hunters have sometimes made mistakes during hunting season, the difference between elk and moose is easy to ascertain. Moose tend to be dark brown or black over their entire bodies with no distinguishing color marks, while elk are lighter brown and have darker necks and a light colored rump.
One big distinction is that male moose have palmate antlers. The space between the tines is partly filled to form a flat surface. Other members of the deer family, including elk, have antlers that are dendritic or twig-like in their configuration. Only the males of the two species have antlers, which are made of bone and are shed each year. Unlike elk, moose are generally solitary, the bulls wander alone and the cows with their calves and yearlings. Because of that, they are not an agricultural problem such as elk that travel in herds. The only time moose form small groups is during the breeding season. Moose rarely leave their territory during the winter months.
Bull moose can be 9 1/2 feet long, 6 feet tall at the shoulder, and weigh in at more than 1,500 pounds. The antlers, which begin growing in late winter, may weigh more than 50 pounds in the fall. Antler growth is very rapid. As the antlers grow they are covered with a blood-rich skin called velvet. That velvet is rubbed off on trees and shrubs during the fall rut. In late winter, the antlers are dropped. Moose have large heads, a bulbous nose pad and a dewlap of skin, called a “bell,” hanging down below the jaw. Moose are excellent swimmers. Their long, spindly legs with large hooves allow them to wade into lakes and ponds as well as travel through deep winter snows. The tail is short and inconspicuous. They appear ungainly, and some folks think they must have been designed by a committee.
The gestation period is about eight months. Moose breed in late September and early October, and the cows will have their calves in late May or early June. Twins are occasionally seen. The calves are born with a reddish brown to blond coat that darkens the first year.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife, now Colorado Parks and Wildlife, completed the first reintroduction of moose from Utah and Wyoming into Colorado in 1978 and 1979. Two groups of 12 moose were released in North Park near Rand. The four bulls, 13 cows, four yearlings, and three calves all had radio collars to monitor their travels.
Aggressive and unpredictable
I was working as a seasonal supervisory park ranger naturalist on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park during those years. In early June 1980, I spotted a moose from my cabin in the Kawuneeche Valley North of Grand Lake. I reported it to the chief biologist and he began to question my observational skills, but I was convinced he did not believe me. Seeing that moose seemed logical to me because North Park was only about 10 miles northwest as the crow flies. A few days later, a ranger at the Grand Lake Entrance Station called road patrol to help with a traffic jam. A moose at the entrance station had stopped all traffic. It was observed by numerous park personnel so I got a reprieve, but no apology. A friend, also a ranger, observed two cow moose on the Continental Divide at Boulder-Grand Pass just a year later. They do wander! The population in the park now may be up to 50, and sightings are an almost daily occurrence.
The moose population in Colorado is now as much as 1,700. The best places in the state to view them are in North Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. They are also found in Middle Park and South Park. Frequent sightings occur near Leadville, Yampa, Fraser, Meeker, Steamboat Springs, Grand Mesa, Gunnison and Creede. They have also been seen on the Front Range near Greeley, Golden, Denver and Colorado Springs. Piney Lake is a good local spot for seeing moose.
If you are lucky enough to see moose, remember that they are large, aggressive, unpredictable and fast (top speed is 35 mph). They are very territorial and will defend their space with little provocation. In the fall rut, adult males spar with other males using their antlers. During this time they can be extremely aggressive and dangerous. There are numerous reports in different parts of the country describing moose that charged locomotives head on.
Enjoy them from a distance!
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes,” published by Westcliffe Publishers and available at The Bookworm, City Market, Amazon and many stores across the state. The book provides photos and text about the history, lore, wildlife and scenery around the passes of Colorado.