Suddenly, I caught movement directly to my left. It was a cow moose — hopefully a barren cow — and she was no more than five paces away. My wife, Cully Kistler, and I had been searching hard for moose the past few days in the Medicine Bow and Never Summer mountains east of Steamboat Springs, looking for a special encounter and hopefully the opportunity to capture a special image on film or on canvas.
Somehow, I had not heard the cow coming through the thick lodgepole pines, maybe because I was focused on the large bull laying in the meadow grass among the willows just a few yards off the timber. I’m sure it was the same bull we caught a glimpse of the previous morning at daybreak. He was browsing with a cow and a smaller bull at that time but apparently not in the mood to pose for photographs.
Because moose commonly feed in the same general area as long as they have an adequate food supply, we planned to return to the meadow at the end of the day and see whether we could get lucky. It was late in the afternoon, and the large bull was there. I worked through the willows trying to position myself for a quality shot, but as it goes all too often with wildlife photography, the light went flat and then faded into twilight before I had the chance. Luckily, it wouldn’t be my last chance to photograph the bull. And as Northwest Colorado’s moose population continues to expand, more and more residents and visitors are getting their own photo opportunities with these magnificent creatures.
Return of the moose
I have lived in Colorado all of my life, but the first moose I saw here was in 1969 when I went to the Routt County Courthouse in Steamboat Springs to get license plates for my car. The 3-year-old bull was on a wall plaque mounted above the stairs as you entered the building. Apparently, it was shot by George Kemry in 1941 near the top of Mount Werner long before the ski area was developed. According to the inscription on the plaque, the moose was killed in self-defense after it charged Kemry and his elk hunting partner.
Moose rarely charge, and I remember thinking 40 years ago how much I would have enjoyed seeing that moose in the wild. Well, not long after, the Colorado Division of Wildlife must have thought the same thing.
In 1974, the DOW initiated the first serious feasibility study to reintroduce the species in our state. Although the Colorado Legislature refused to allocate state funds for the project, approval was given contingent on public donations. The first group of 12 moose were selected from the Uinta Mountains in Utah and released July 23, 1978, in the Big Bottom area of the Illinois River drainage in southern Jackson County near the town of Rand.
In 1979, another dozen moose were captured near Moran Junction in Wyoming’s Teton Range and released in the same area of Jackson County.
Today, the DOW estimates there are 550 to 600 moose in North Park, and their range is constantly expanding. Subsequent herds have been established beginning in December 1991 with the Rio Grande herd near Creede, in 2005 on the Grand Mesa east of Grand Junction, and in 2009 in the Flat Tops near Meeker. Moose now can be found roaming Colorado in nearly every river drainage on the Western Slope, including here in Steamboat Springs.
Moose are the largest member of the deer family, and the largest moose live in the northern latitudes between the 60 and 65 parallels where the food supply is the most nutritious — fueled by the long hours of daylight. The largest Alaskan moose on record was killed on the Yukon River in 1897. It weighed 1,800 pounds and stood 7 feet, 8 inches tall at its shoulders.
Although Colorado Shiras moose and the Alaskan moose are the same species, they are separate ecotypes — variations generated by different environments. Because body size is directly linked to nutritional intake as well as climate, Colorado moose in the right environment may not achieve the body size of their Alaskan relatives, but they can come close. Mature bulls in Colorado can measure taller than 6 feet and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
There is not much physical evidence or literary mention of moose living in this part of North America until the past few centuries. Moose are not typically afraid of humans, so it is possible that any moose in this area were easily hunted out by the native people and early settlers.
The forefathers of the moose we know today came to North America about 10,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge. This Eurasian moose was different than its predecessors in a very special way — it had developed an unusual nose. While most herbivores in Pleistocene Eurasia were adapting to a dwindling food supply by developing teeth better suited to grinding coarse-fibered browse, the moose was adding aquatic plants to its diet. The large bulbous nose we see on our moose today is a result of that adaptation, and it serves them well. Not only are they the only member of the deer family that can swallow with their heads underwater, but they also use those sensitive noses to probe the willows for the most tender twigs and branches. Moose also are excellent swimmers and have been known to dive as deep as 18 feet for aquatic plants.
Although the moose that live in this part of Colorado appear to have an adequate diet during the warmer months, winter is different. Moose have, at best, a difficult time finding enough nourishment to get through the winter, when food supplies usually are insufficient to meet daily demands. This shortage is subsidized by breaking down the animal’s store of fat. Even without having to fight off predators and avoid human contact, they are malnourished and have lost a great deal of body weight by the spring thaw. If you are fortunate enough to come upon a moose in the winter, watch it from a distance that is comfortable to the animal, and do not cause it to expend unneeded energy.
Bull moose shed their antlers sometime between early winter and late winter. The new growth begins again in spring and continues until early September. During this time, the antlers are covered with velvet, which carries the nutrients needed for antler development. The velvet dries up and peels off in a matter of days and signals the beginning of the rut. Mating season begins in September and runs into October, with newborn calves arriving in late May and early June. Cow moose are extremely protective of their calves and can be more dangerous than a mother grizzly bear.
Although moose can be found in Routt and Moffat counties, Walden is the self-proclaimed “Moose watching capital” of Colorado. Walden is the county seat for Jackson County and is in the heart of North Park. One trip to this area and it becomes obvious why the DOW chose it for the initial moose transplant in 1978. The vast streambeds thick with willows, moderate winter snowpack and sparse human population make for ideal moose habitat. No wonder it has the highest concentration of moose in Colorado. The area also borders Rocky Mountain National Park.
The best time of day to look for moose is early morning and late afternoon. Moose are large, powerful animals and should be given plenty of space and respect. When watching or photographing wildlife, it’s best to be patient and let them come to you. The chance of a moose attacking you for no reason is remote, but you should be very careful when around them, especially if you are hiking with a dog. If a moose lowers its head, lays down its ears and raises the hair on its back, you could be in serious trouble.
Luckily, the cow that walked five paces away from me that morning in the lodgepole pines did not show any of those signs. The big bull I wanted to capture on film was laying 50 feet away with a younger bull. We had scouted the meadow again at daybreak but saw no sign of the moose. Returning 30 minutes later, I caught a glimpse of antler through my binoculars in the willows a quarter of a mile away. I realized that by using the lodgepole pines as cover, I could get very close to this bull without disturbing him. It was a perfect photo situation.
I had been waiting on the edge of the timber for a half an hour when the cow strolled by. After she passed, she walked slowly out of the woods and into the meadow. As she did, the two bulls got up, and as luck would have it, the clouds thinned, the light was soft, and I got my shot. I was hooked and now spend as much time as I can hanging out with moose.
Longtime Steamboat Springs resident and nature photographer Don Tudor owns Sleeping Giant Gallery in downtown Steamboat with his wife, Cully Kistler. Visit their website at www.dontudorphotography.com or call 970-879-7143.