Wildlife biologists in Alaska’s urban core are beginning to worry that a combination of the COVID-19 lock down, late-lingering snows and good intentions could be brewing a perfect storm of death for moose.
Huge ungulates that are a scenic attraction in the sprawling Anchorage metro area, the big animals often go largely unnoticed by suburban residents busy rushing to and from work.
Only now, a lot of those people are at home due to the coronavirus lockdown, and being that they are at home hiding from COVID-19, they are much more likely to notice neighborhood moose looking scrawny and apparently starving.
Moose in poor condition like this in the spring are the Alaska norm. Even in mild winters, the animals are on a starvation diet from late fall until the land begins to go green in the spring.
They struggle through winter on a diet of twigs, sticks and bark. And while on this diet, their four-compartment stomachs, common to all ruminants, undergo specific biological changes to adapt to digesting the roughage.
A sudden shift in diet to carrots, lettuce, cabbage, apples or whatever else humans might decide to feed them can lead to death in a couple of ways. It’s a problem common to all ruminants.
Loving animals to death
“Are You Feeding Your Deer To Death?” Outdoor Life magazine was moved to ask in Feb. 2013 when a severe winter hit the northern part of the Lower 48.
“It’s that time of year again when well meaning do-gooders (including hunters and landowners) start killing winter stressed dear by feeding them,” Craig Dougherty wrote. “Concerned that whitetails are not getting enough to eat, they drive pickups full of corn or apples (or just about anything a deer will eat) into the woods and leaving it for the hungry deer to gobble down. And that’s when the deer to begin to starve.
“Accustomed to digesting woody browse, they are unable to tolerate corn or apples. Whitetails do not do well on radical changes to their diets and a corn pile is a radical change from the diet of twigs and dead leaves they’ve been on for the past month or more.
“Artificially fed deer wander off with a belly full of corn and slowly start starving to death as its digestive system struggles to digest the corn.”
Moose are no different, and starvation is only the half of it.
Ruminal tympany – or what is commonly called bloat – can kill moose as surely as it kills cattle.
As that collection of stomachs known as the rumen fills with frothy fluid or gas, blood flow in abdominal organs is compromised, and “pressure on the diaphragm interferes with lung function,” notes Colorado State’s school of a veterinary medicine.
The pressure can become so severe the animals simply cannot get enough oxygen to survive and thus die. Young moose, being inherently smaller and weaker than older moose, are especially susceptible.
And that’s what worries state biologists who’ve long dealt with trying to curb human urges to be helpful in years when snow lingers late in significant portions of urban Alaska.
“I think we will have more of that (feeding) this year with people staying home, but we will see,” assistant area wildlife biologist Cory Stantorf with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game messaged earlier this week.
Dangerous and deadly
The state has been trying to get the word out that people feeding moose is bad in many ways, including the fact that the moose that the feed doesn’t kill can get aggressive in demanding more food.
A 1995 video of a 71-year-old man being stomped to death outside a building on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage offered a grim and tragic example of how dangerous the animals.
The moose knocked the man to the ground. He then tried to fend it off with his arms. Wildlife officials say that if you are attacked like this, the thing to do is curl up in ball, cover your head with your arms and make your body as small a target as possible.
The video, as troubling as it is informative, can still be found on YouTube. Viewer discretion is advised.
Because of the dangers to both moose and humans caused by people feeding the animals, the state has in the past sometimes prosecuted Alaskans for feeding the animals. It is illegal to due so.
State officials in January 2014 charged 67-year-old, Anchorage Hillside resident Samuel Becker with illegal feeding moose after neighbors complained that his actions were drawing the animals into his neighborhood.
Along with the bad publicity that followed for Becker, he had to go to court where he eventually pleaded guilty and was fined $2,000 with $1,000 suspended.
At the time, a state biologist observed that while feeding moose might seem a lot like feeding birds – which is legal – it’s not. Feeding moose moose is both illegal, and a danger to man and beast.
So despite what the National Weather Service reports was a far colder than normal March that left Anchorage with the sixth deepest snow depth on record for the end of that month, and a cold start to April, state wildlife officials say the best thing people can do for the area’s moose is leave them alone.
The April snow cover remains significantly above normal due to a chill that settled over the state in January and has yet to subside. April is running about 5 degrees colder than the long term normal, according to the National Weather Service.
The return of a real winter after a couple years of global-warming winters has had made things tough for moose, but most of the animals will survive.