Thursday, May 22, 2014

May Moose Antlers

Bull moose spring antlers (c) John Ashley
These spring moose antlers on this older bull will grow to nearly 5' wide and 50 lbs by fall

Two mornings ago, I headed up into the Many Glacier valley after working all night just a few miles away. It was nice and quiet on the human front at 4 a.m. - too dark for the roving herds of ubiquitous photographers, too early for the glassy-eyed employees who live there. But the animals were active as always, and I counted seven moose feeding between the highway and developed area, five adults and two yearlings, including a pair who appeared to be looking in the windows of one residence.

Bull moose spring antlers (c) John AshleyMoose calves won't hit the ground until early June. But the male equivalent, antlers, started appearing several weeks ago. Energetically speaking, a pair of calves and a large pair of antlers are supposed to require about the same amount of caloric input. Cows give birth to 1 or 2 calves weighing 25-35 lbs. each, while big bulls grow a pair of annual antlers that span up to 60" wide with a combined weight of up to 50 lbs.

Moose are the largest member of the deer family, and in Montana we have the smallest sub-species, the Shiras' moose (Alces alces shirasi). Regulating hunters helped North American moose populations grow for most of the 20th century, but populations started plummeting again in the early 1990's. A combination of factors include at least two that are related to climate change. Moose evolved in cooler climates, and they do not have sweat glands for cooling in summer. Increasingly, heat stress is causing moose to seek shade and remain inactive for long periods. And warmer winters means less tick kill-off, and tick infestations are now growing and weakening otherwise healthy moose, which are then more susceptible to predation and disease.

Yearling moose (c) John Ashley
Yearling moose in pre-dawn light
Instead of facing the new reality, Montana punted by initiating an 8-10 year study to identify the (known) causes of declines. The state agency seemed to feel this was necessary because they feared the bellicose minority of "hunters" who think that all wild animals belong exclusively to good ol' boys with more bullets than brain cells. They blame the moose decline on wolf reintroduction, of course, as if moose and wolves didn't evolve together over many thousands of years, both surviving quite well until the 1990's. Waiting 10 years allows the current managers to avoid the consequences. Unfortunately, moose don't have that option.