by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
I'm sure that when you were little, your mother admonished you to "don't play with matches", "look up and down the street before you cross it", "don't pet strange dogs" and gave you many other cautionary warnings. Now that you are all grown up, I'm going to give you another, "Don't mess with a momma moose with calves".
A big bull moose, during the rutting season, is a force to be reckoned with and a confrontation to be avoided at all costs. A sow, particularly a grizzly sow, with cubs has a well-deserved reputation for ferociousness and unpredictability. Interactions with them occasionally produce an obituary. I rank a cow moose protecting her calves right up there as being one of the most dangerous situations a wildlife photographer is likely to encounter.
I have been taught to have great respect for what a cow moose can do. I caution repeatedly, constantly, that moose should not be photographed with any lens shorter than 400 mm and then preferably with a 1.4 teleconverter on it. With that combination, moose can be photographed at a minimum distance of 150' and you can still fill the frame. No one should approach any moose, at any time of the year, any closer than 150' and it's better if you don't get that close. At that distance, if a moose should decide to charge, you have a chance of taking evasive action, but remember a moose traveling at 35 mph can cover 150' in less than three seconds.
What's your reaction time and how far can you go in three seconds?
I have always stressed that, when working with potentially dangerous animals, you know exactly what you are going to do and where you could go before you have to do either. And I also say a little prayer. As I approach moose, and am still hundreds of feet away, I make mental note of each tree or the location of other protective cover as I pass it. Moose usually display a series of warning signs before they do anything, BUT DON'T COUNT ON IT. The first sign is that they lay their ears back along their head, then their manes raise straight up and, thirdly, they open their mouth so their tongue hangs out. Usually the moose is in high gear before the tongue hangs out. If you are still where you were when you saw the first two signs, you've waited too long. Aggressive big bulls rock their antlers quickly from side to side, which allows you to see the whites of their eyes. We all know that Colonel Prescott told his men at the Battle of Bunker Hill, "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes."
I'm telling you, "Don't shoot when you see the whites of their eyes, get out of there!"
There are four subspecies of moose found in North America, ranging in size from big to bigger and biggest. Alces Alces Shirasi is the smallest form and is found in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. A .A. Americana is the moose found in New England and eastern Canada. A. A. Andersoni is found in Canada from the Great Lakes west to British Columbia and A. A. Gigas, the giant of the family, is found in the Yukon and Alaska. The bulls range in size from 6' - 7 ½' high at the shoulder and weigh from 1200 to 1800 lbs according to the subspecies. Moose are the largest members of the deer family.
The four subspecies differ widely in both habits and habitat. Having guided in the wilderness areas of Quebec, I was used to seeing the moose feeding, mainly in the lakes. The bulls were solitary and the moose did not band up in the rutting season. In Yellowstone National Park, the bulls band in groups of three or four all year, except during the rutting season.
In Alaska, I was surprised to find cow moose and their calves high in the mountains with the Dall's sheep. It was the safest place they could be because the grizzly bears vacuumed the brush of the lowlands and killed every calf they could find. The Alaskan bulls were in groups of two to three all year and gathered harems of cows during the rutting season. The habits of the moose were adapted to the food, habitat and predators found in each area. Their ability to survive is best summed up in the phrase, "You gottta do what you gotta do".
To prove that whatever the moose are doing is right, is seen by the tremendous explosion in the number of moose and their great expansion of range.
We actually had a sighting of a young bull moose passing through my home area of New Jersey several years ago and there have never been moose in New Jersey in historical times. This explosion and expansion is the result of three factors. First and foremost are, better game laws that are better enforced. Secondly is the fact that surplus moose are being transplanted to areas of their former range from which they had been extirpated. Thirdly, and perhaps this should be number one, the moose, in most areas, are building up an immunity to the meningeal parasite, a brain worm, that is found in white-tailed deer. The deer have been hosts to this worm for a long time but are seldom affected by it. As the range of the deer increases, so does the exposure to the worm to all other members of the deer family that are not immune. When this parasite passes from the deer's body, via excrement, the parasites infect the snails that are found in the grass. These snails, along with the vegetation, are eaten by other animals; the parasites then migrate to the host animal's' brain, causing the animal to lose motor control, with death following shortly. Although this is still happening in new areas, in established areas, the mule deer, elk and moose are gradually building up immunity, as did the white-tailed deer.
Moose are most active in the early morning and late in the afternoon, but there is also a feeding period around 11 a. m. I have found that the eastern moose are more apt to be found in the ponds at any time of day, than are the other subspecies of moose, because they are plagued by more insect pests. By feeding in the ponds and lakes, the moose not only have access to highly nutritious food, but get relief from the clouds of stinging, biting, blood-sucking insects.
In all areas, the rutting season occurs from about the second week of September through the first week in October. Even before this happens, the moose in Alaska begin to gather in harems while the eastern moose just pair up.
Baxter State Park in Maine is one of the best places to find the eastern moose. Almost every pond, and most lakes are called ponds, have moose feeding in them. Sand Pond at the foot of Katahdin is perhaps the best area. Any of the roads outside of the park and all of the area in Maine around Aroostook, north of the park, are excellent moose country.
A few years ago Route 3, from Colebrook to the Canadian border in New Hampshire was called "Moose Alley", and was a focal point for photographing moose. However, since New Hampshire's moose population has increased to the point where it must be controlled by hunting, the moose do not hang out along the roadsides as they used to do. The moose that do come out do so after it has gotten too dark for photography. The best places along roadsides to find moose are at the foot of any long hill. The salt put on the road in the winter concentrates at the bottom of the hills. But the background, in most areas, is very poor. Don't waste your time going there.
For years, in Yellowstone, the two best areas for moose used to be Pelican Creek just past Fishing Bridge and the Lamar Valley before you get to Soda Butte. Today, the moose aren't there because the willows aren't there and the willows are a top moose food.
Now that the wolves have been introduced to Lamar Valley, the willows will have a good chance of growing back and perhaps the moose will also return. Although the wolves can easily kill moose calves, a determined stand by a healthy adult moose will usually keep a wolf pack at bay.
Today the willows have recovered after the burn in Willow Park on the west side of Yellowstone and the moose are back. I don't know why the moose also hang out on the road going back to the petrified trees, but they are there.
Probably the best place to find moose in Yellowstone is in the Lewis Falls area. The bogs and meadows have good stands of willow. If you work that area, I would definitely advise you to drive right on down to the Grand Teton National Park. If they don't have a larger moose population than Yellowstone, they have more accessible areas.
Just before the main entrance station to Grand Teton National Park is an overlook, which will allow you to glass the willow flats below. Moose can almost always be found there. One difficulty is finding the moose again after you get down in the high brush. The answer to the question, "How do you lose sight of an animal as big as a moose?" is "Easy." After you leave the junction, there is a roadside pullout on the right hand side of Route 89. This, too, is a great spot for moose as well as waterfowl. Drive down to Schwabacher's Flats, also on Route 89. Good for moose, and beaver too. At Moose Junction drive north on Teton Park Road for the same animals.
The Kenai Moose Preserve, south of Anchorage, Alaska, has a large concentration of moose. The area is managed to insure that the habitat does not become climactic, which reduces the value as moose food. Denali National Park is now famous for its moose and I'm willing to bet that ninety percent of all the moose photos sold were taken in the park. While it is difficult to get a permit to drive into the park during the rutting season, the best moose activity occurs on the paved road that is open to everyone. The best area is from milepost #5 to the Savage River Campground on either side of the road.
Moose photography is not highly salable, but I have never let that be criteria for what I should photograph. I will continue to photograph moose whenever I can because I get a thrill out of working with these magnificent animals.