An Increasing Presence: Moose of the North Cascades
In the early morning hours of a chilly October day, Adam Brayton and Christine Sanderson, students with the North Cascades Institute’s Graduate M. Ed program, awoke to an unusual sight. A large, hoofed mammal with gangly long legs came careening out of a thicket and tromped through the cohort’s campsite on Chelan Ridge, in the Okanogan-Winatchee National Forest. “Is it a cow? A horse? Maybe a big elk?” they thought, watching the monster crash into the willows and descend a down a brushy slope and into the forest. Upon investigation of the massive tracks left behind by the beast, it was clear that what they had just seen was a Moose (Alces alces).
The graduate students were camping on the ridge as part of their 2018 Natural History trip to participate in a HawkWatch raptor survey and learn about bird migration. However, in addition to seeing some cool birds-of-prey, they also got a bonus wildlife encounter not usually associated with the Pacific Northwest.
Moose exist throughout the northern territories of North America and Europe. In the United States they have historically been common in New England, the upper-Midwest and large portions of the Rocky Mountains, and are believed to have been colonizing Washington since the mid-20th century, advancing east and south from Canada. They prefer forested environments with an abundance of lakes, marshes and wetlands, of which there is are plenty in our region of the world. Moose are the largest of the deer family. Cows usually weigh between 600 and 800 pounds, while bulls can weigh in at over 1,000, standing nearly 6 feet tall at the shoulder! They are characterized by their long legs, barrel-shaped bodies, long snouts and large paddle-like antlers, which males grow every Spring and shed in the Fall.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are approximately 3,000 Moose in the state of Washington. Most of them reside in the remote mountains of Northeastern Washington. However, smaller populations are known to inhabit the North Cascades, and recent observations suggest their numbers may be on the rise.
The name “Moose” comes from an Algonquin word that means “twig eater”. This life history observation of Moose diet may present some clues about why we are seeing more of them in the North Cascades in recent years. Large wildfires in 2014, 2015 and 2018 burned massive stands of forest on the east side of the Cascades, setting records for burned acreage, and altering the ecosystem and forest composition of Central Washington for decades to come. For many species, these fires greatly reduced available habitat, but for Moose, it may actually be a benefit.
State Wildlife Biologist Scott Fitkin has a theory: “Moose are one of the unique animals that may be benefiting from the increase of wildfires occurring in the Pacific Northwest. In the wake of a wildfire, the first successors when it comes to plant-life are tasty deciduous growth such as Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Willow (Salix lucida) which are some of the preferred food sources for moose.”
This growth of post-fire vegetation is providing a more suitable habitat for these animals as they fit into a specific niche that browses on riparian vegetation. The long legs of moose give them an advantage over other browsing species such as deer because they can wade into deeper water and access vegetation unavailable to their smaller ungulate counterparts.
While Moose may be a more common site in the North Cascades than in previous decades, the long-term outlook on their survival here is not good. Moose have been hit hard by climate change in other regions of the country, and their numbers nationwide have been in decline since the early 1990s. Moose typically prefer climates where temperatures stay below 60 degrees in summer and 30 degrees in winter. Such conditions are increasingly hard to find in today’s warming world. Aside from physiological intolerance to heat, Moose are incredibly susceptible to winter ticks which could be exacerbated by climate change. Moose already can get up to 100,000 ticks per animal, according to Fitkin, which effects their fitness.
In the meantime, Moose remain healthy members of the North Cascades remarkable ecosystem, and provide excellent opportunity for wildlife viewing if you’re lucky enough to spot one.
If you do come across one of these remarkable specimens in your adventures in the North Cascades, you are encouraged to report them to the Washington Department for Fish and Wildlife here.