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Collateral damage?

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The remains of a moose calve that might have fallen victim to well-meaning humans/Craig Medred photo

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.

Aggressive moose have killed multiple Alaskans and injured dozens, if not hundreds, more.

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. 

This comes on the heels of a January that was 10.9 degrees colder; a February that was 1.5 degrees colder; and a March that was 5.1 degrees colder in Anchorage.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 replies »

  1. Moose are lucky if they live near Anchorage. There will be a big die-off of moose this year in the Susitna Valley where the snowfall has been much greater.

  2. Thanks for the information. I had noticed scrawny moose on our motion cameras. I could see how uninformed but well intentioned people might feed moose.

  3. As usual Craig does a very laudable job on a complex issue (consistent with his wildlife biologist education). I appreciated his views when we met in Katmai’s Brooks River camp in the early 80s.

    When I taught wildlife science in Utah I also put commercial deer mix (like that for goats) in small amounts in my yard where mulies came each winter. But I never started any feeding late in winter for the reasons that Craig outlined. Their rumens are shut down for rich feed. I argued that a supplement by those of us having homes on deer winter range, needed to help the poor buggers. Many of my neighbours did the same. We never had any dead deer in the spring, but we did see signs of deer munching on Colorado spruce, which the state biologists seemed to think would not be touched.
    I don’t know much about AK moose winter forage and digestion, the world’s largest deer,

    Thanks, Craig.

  4. Come on Craig, we both know this is bullchit – right? “The return of a real winter after a couple years of global-warming winters”.. To have a “real” Alaskan Winter we would need Global Cooling right? Because, if we are warming due to the Industrial Revolution, we certainly are not cooling. Plus, we know for a fact Alaska has experienced el Nino the last 5 to 6 years.. Not to mention the position of the Jet Stream. This has been responsible for the past few mild Winters and NOT some fabriacted “Global Warming”.
    Marlin and Steve bring up another issue and that is CWD.. While valid, I am not sure it applies in this case. Steve, most whitetails you referenced back East aren’t generally getting CWD from cornfields and most cornfields are cut when there is still plenty of browse around. We get into the CWD issue more from those late season hunters dumping corn piles on the ground every other day and not spreading the corn out. Thus, groups of 25+ deer feeding tightly together is common and ripe for CWD transmission. While I am not an advocate of feeding moose to gawk at, I don’t think a few backyard burners throwing a bucket out the backdoor is going to contribute to CWD.

  5. UAA students were filmed throwing snowballs at the moose prior to the incident. The man that was killed was innocent.

    I do not advocate feeding any ungulates at any time of the year.

    Moose may very well be negatively affected by feeding on non browse materials in the winter. Biologists in the lower 48 constantly warn that corn will kill deer.

    I have seen deer fed corn all winter by well meaning people that had no adverse conditions. Deer killed in late muzzle loader season(January) adjacent to unharvested corn fields(due to wet ground) have stomachs full of corn and are fat and healthy.

    The very serious reason not to feed ungulates is that grouping of these animals spreads chronic wasting disease which is approaching the Alaskan border. When the naturally grouping herds of caribou get infected with CWD there will be no hope since there is no cure……………….

    • Marlin,
      I agree on the corn…as having grown up in Pennsylvania with a corn field behind my house, I can tell you that the whitetails who lived and fed in those fields were some of the largest and healthiest that I have ever seen.
      Eventually many of the “feed corn” fields for livestock were replaced by Monsanto subsidized GMO soy beans and now we are seeing CWD sweeping through the herds?
      If CWD makes it’s way to Alaska’s ungulates the substance lifestyle is in for a real scare and if CWD ever makes the jump from animals to humans then we are really screwed.

      • Many years ago, I read an article in the Scientific American written by a doctor about a form of CJD that developed in rural families that ate squirrel brains. It was a local phenomenon that existed in families where eating the brains was a centuries old tradition. He was a city dweller who had married into one of the families and noticed the CJD behaviour while visiting his in-laws. Becoming intrigued, he spent years studying the local families.

  6. I did not know this. Thank you for important information on how to protect our moose from ourselves.

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