Springtime in the Rockies — one of the most beautiful seasons to enjoy being in the mountains, as winter chill gives way to the warm thaw. It is a time for renewal, fresh starts and new life. It is the time when many of the wild animals give birth to their young, including elk, deer and moose.
We are fortunate to live in a state with rich habitat, conducive to many types of wildlife flourishing around us to enjoy and take pride in. That enjoyment comes with a responsibility to be good guardians of our natural surroundings. It is exciting for anyone to witness wildlife in their natural habitat, especially the young, so adorable and cute. Most recently, the Vail Valley has seen an influx of moose, a relatively rare occurrence, which has drawn a lot of recent attention.
The moose population has grown tremendously since being reintroduced to Colorado in 1978 and 1979, resulting in a growing number of human-moose encounters. Moose have very few natural enemies in the wild and, as a result, do not fear humans — unlike most other big game species. However, female moose (cows) are very protective of their young (calves) to the point of being dangerous if approached or caught off guard. Cows give birth in May and June, and the mothers and their calves have extremely strong bonds. During the first weeks of life, the newborn calves depend on the mother’s milk for nourishment and colostrum to help build their immune systems. The calves will stay with their mothers for up to a year, learning the skills required to survive in the wilderness.
Bull moose, with their large antlers, massive size and distinctive, bulbous nose, are among the most charismatic of all of Colorado’s species. However, during the fall rutting season, they are especially protective of their territory and will defend it aggressively.
Human are greatest threats
It is common for mother deer, elk and moose to leave their calves and fawns alone for extended periods of time as they forage for food. When the mother senses danger, she might move away from the calf for its protection and then return when the danger has passed. However, when humans and vulnerable newborns interact, it is usually the baby that suffer the consequence. This was made clear recently by an unfortunate event here in Vail. It was reported that a mother moose and her newborn calf had been separated, and after being chased by nearby kids the calf ran into the open doors of a hotel lobby where he collapsed from fear, shock and exhaustion. The calf was eventually tranquilized and removed by wildlife officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Unfortunately, this moose will never be reunited with his mother, even if he survives the stress of this experience. Statistically, young moose, deer and elk have a more difficult time surviving in captivity than in their natural environment, and a successful rehabilitation and reintroduction to the wild is challenging due to a tendency for the animals to imprint on humans while in captivity.
Although moose have thrived recently in the Colorado high country, to the delight of visitors and photo enthusiasts, humans are the greatest threats to these animals. Approximately 15 percent of the state’s moose mortality each year comes from illegal kills alone. Others have died in vehicle collisions. A growing number of moose have been killed as a result of human conflict, including several instances where a dog owner allowed their pet to get too close to a moose.
Moose see all dogs as a threat due to their similarity to wolves, their only natural predator. They will aggressively attack any dog that gets too close. Humans are injured when the moose chases the dog back to the owner, bringing an angry, 1,000-pound moose with it.
Here are some simple steps that people can take to help preserve wildlife that we cherish here in Colorado:
• Keep dogs on leashes when hiking in the wilderness, especially during the springtime when many young are being born and are most vulnerable; dogs can severely stress and injure wildlife. In addition, moose see dogs as predators and will attack them aggressively, often leading to the dog’s owner being injured as well. Keep in mind that law enforcement officials are authorized to use whatever force is necessary to stop a dog from injuring wild animals.
• Never approach a wild animal, even if you think it is abandoned/injured. If the animal appears weak, malnourished or it is clear that its mother has been injured or killed, then immediately notify Colorado Parks and Wildlife or local authorities. Do not take matters into your own hands.
• If you are a photography enthusiast, invest in a telephoto lens and enjoy the wildlife from a safe distance — yours and theirs.
• Respect trail closures during calving and fawning season — these dates will be posted at trailheads and maps.
• Teach children not to chase or approach any wildlife, especially the young, no matter how cute and adorable they are!
• Educate guests visiting from other areas on the importance of respecting wildlife and natural habitats.
• Food should never be given to wildlife. It will cause animals to become habituated to humans which can create unfortunate and dangerous encounters for humans and animals.
• A wildlife conflict in which a human has been injured usually results in the death of the animal, regardless of the circumstances. Following a few simple steps can prevent you being responsible for the needless death of a wild animal.
The high country wilderness is a valuable asset to the state of Colorado. It is the reason so many of us love living here, and why so many people enjoy visiting. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has many excellent articles and educational materials about living with wildlife and helping to maintain a sustainable environment for these animals. This material is available for free online at http://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Livingwith Wildlife.aspx.
Evelyn Pinney lives in Edwards. This article was written in conjunction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.