Moose feeling pinched on all sides

Oct 23, 2013 By Chris Peck

They aren't very well equipped to deal with change

Bullwinkle likely is the most famous moose in America.

A star of TV and movies, Bullwinkle the moose has endeared himself to generations of kids through re-runs of the "Rocky and his Friends" cartoons and later "The Bullwinkle Show."

The big knobby-kneed cartoon goofball starred in his own movie, ranks No. 32 on TV Guide's list of greatest TV stars of all time, still makes spot appearances on The Cartoon Network, and is watched on Hulu, even though the original cartoons have been gone for 50 years.

Yet as the cartoon Bullwinkle lives on, the plight of real, live moose isn't all that funny.

Moose are in decline all over the Lower 48, including in Wyoming.

That's a shame. Because people in Wyoming for a long time have looked for moose as almost a rite of citizenship.

Who hasn't driven over the pass to the Tetons or to Yellowstone and not looked for a moose?

They just seemed to be everywhere -- wading in the wetlands outside the Jackson Lake Lodge, hanging out on the banks of the Snake River, lounging in the Wind River Mountains above Lander.

But the Wyoming moose population is dropping -- and fast.

A combination of factors apparently is leading to the decline.

The big Yellowstone fire of 1988 scorched miles of old-growth spruce and fir trees, eliminating moose habitat in the state, and contributing to a pine beetle outbreak that killed even more trees.

Then there is the rise in bear and wolf populations, and the corresponding rise in the number of wild moose kills.

Perhaps most importantly, the impact of climate change has hit moose hard.

Winters are shorter and warmer in Wyoming these days. The warmer winters, ironically, require moose to expend extra energy to stay cool.

And, warmer winters often lead to less-defined springtimes.This disrupted spring weather, in turn, cuts down the nutritious green foliage that moose eat early in the year.

Then there are the parasites. Bugs of all kinds -- from bark beetles to ticks -- used to be killed off in cold winters. Not so much these days. And moose are feeling it.

With warmer, shorter winters, moose today can be infested with as many as 100,000 ticks, according to Montana's Fish and Wildlife Department's Kristine Rines, recently quoted in The New York Times.

Unlike their cousins, the deer, a moose is ill-equipped to swat away ticks -- because until recently that's not something a moose needed to do.

The hunting harvest numbers tell the story.

In 2003, hunters in Wyoming bagged 999 moose in the season that basically runs for the month of October.

In 2012, only 437 moose were bagged across the state.

A drop from 999 to 437 in just 10 years.

Some of that decline is being managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Fewer moose hunting permits are being granted in an attempt to manage better the moose population that remains.

Only five moose permits, for example, were issued for the Lander hunt area for October. Ditto for the Wind River drainage -- just five permits.

So who cares?

Does anybody worry about fewer moose? Should they?

In a word, yes.

On any scale of critters-people-would-like-to-see, moose rank high.

They aren't all wrapped up in controversy like grizzlies and wolves.

Maybe we have Bullwinkle to thank for that.

In a more profound way, moose are big, hairy harbingers of ecological health.

Some states talk about canaries in the coal mine.

Wyoming can talk about moose in the river.

The waters and wetlands of Wyoming are tailor-made for moose. The health of the moose speaks to the health of their natural surroundings. And ours.

It's not just moose, after all, who have to adjust to changes.

All of us live in those same natural surroundings, buffeted by the forces of nature when things get too hot, or too cold, or when the snows come too early or not at all.

That's really the issue when it comes to the big debate about climate change.

It's not the politics that matter, in the long run.

Climate change is about our ability to survive and thrive as a species -- just like the moose.

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