Moose in Our Midst

By Elizabeth Farnsworth Gazette Contributing Writer

Have you seen a moose (and kept a straight face)? My first close encounter with a moose, in the wilds of Royalston, took place shortly after we moved here. My husband and I were gazing sleepily out the bedroom window one early morning, admiring the view, when we looked down to catch a bull moose staring directly up at us from the backyard.

“Oh my,” said I, stifling a laugh at this gangly yet strangely magnificent megafauna straight out of the Pleistocene.

A year later, we were hiking the back forty when an assertive rustling in the forest caught our attention. Stalking the noise, we came up over a small knoll to find a bull bearing an impressive antler rack, munching on red maple saplings. Our “Wild Kingdom” moment was tempered a bit by the fact that the big male also bore a florescent yellow collar looking something like a life preserver. This was a radio collar equipped with a global positioning system designed to track his movements, probably bestowed upon him by Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife biologists who transported him to Royalston. Locals here muse that the majority of moose that wander into misadventures east of the Route 495 corridor are transplanted to the remote wetlands and young woodlands of our town.

The mixture of Royalston woodlots in various stages of succession are ideal habitats for moose; they strip the bark and nibble buds of young trees, favoring northern tree species like aspen and balsam fir and supplementing their diet with grasses and lichens. (And they eat a lot—in experiments excluding moose from forest clearings, many more seedlings regenerate than in areas where they can freely forage.) Less frequently, moose also visit wetlands, foraging for pondweeds, water lilies and other succulent herbs.

Though their preferred food is not widespread here, moose are becoming more common throughout the state, and people from the outer Boston ’burbs to the Berkshires are spotting them more frequently.

Clearing for agriculture in the 1800s nearly eliminated moose from Massachusetts, but they staged a comeback in the mid-1950s, beginning to breed here in the 1990s. This state is currently the southernmost range boundary for these boreal denizens (they make forays into Connecticut, and they once ranged as far south as Pennsylvania—and may yet again if climate change does not make the territory too warm for them).

People most often spot moose in the fall, when males are actively in rut, and in late spring, when last year’s calves are leaving their newly-pregnant mothers to strike out on their own. During other times of year, moose keep a surprisingly low profile. Astonishingly, a male standing six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing upwards of 1,000 pounds can vanish into a thicket of trees without so much as cracking a twig underfoot; I have personally watched a female and her calf calmly cross our road, then evaporate into the woods.

Despite their secretive nature, with nearly 1,000 moose now resident in the state, they are encountering humans more often each year. Unfortunately, many of the people they meet are in cars. A collision with a long-legged moose can send it flying through a windshield, so it is important to give them a wide berth on the road. Tracking studies reveal that moose are restless creatures, covering a home range of 47 square miles a year on average and making hundreds of road crossings—many at night.

Other perils to the very large are the very small: moose are plagued by ticks (even more so than humans), and can suffer from dense infestations in their fur, balding them in patches. Perhaps this scruffiness adds to their comic unlikeliness. In the absence of wolves, their once-abundant predators, moose now more commonly succumb to the ravages of insects and hunger.

So, if you happen to spot a moose, don’t laugh at these ungainly ungulates. It’s a testament to their resilience that they are here, and we’re lucky to share this part of the world with them for a while.

Elizabeth Farnsworth is Senior Research Ecologist at the New England Wild Flower Society, teacher, and scientific illustrator. For more information about moose in Massachusetts, visit the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the New England Research Institute for Moose and Forest Dynamics.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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