Four Ways to Respect Moose

If you think of them as Bullwinkles, it's because you haven't met one.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Moose are the Rodney Dangerfields of the animal world. Consider Bullwinkle, the dim-witted sidekick of a flying squirrel; or the mounted moose head, as comedically reliable as a banana peel; or the big, slow kid nicknamed Moose. Wolves and elk have well-funded foundations dedicated to their public relations. But moose? They get to be called "meese."

Moose get no respect-except from people who actually meet them. All the hoots and nicknames come from those who think driving through Vermont foliage is a wilderness safari. But the folks who actually meet moose always respect them. They may not like moose, but they respect them.

Meeting Moose
I grew up with moose in western Montana, where our family made at least one annual trip to Yellowstone Park. This was back when "Yogi" bears begged for food along the highways, and 15,000 elk and 4,000 bison hadn't eliminated most moose willows from the park. Both black bears and moose were commonly seen by the average visitor, amid only occasional herds of elk or buffalo.

It was interesting to see the different ways urban folks interacted with various animals. Fools who'd place their kid on a black bear's back for a "cute" photo stayed very clear of a mama moose and her calf. Lunatics who'd tease a bull bison by flinging buffalo chips into his face would suddenly step back-way back-from a big Bullwinkle that suddenly rose from the willows along a trout creek.

Fear the Lone Moose
Moose speak body language that even city folks can understand. Other large ungulates live in herds. The calves of elk and bison are mostly protected by dozens of alert eyes. But adult moose live by themselves. While they're quite capable of fleeing predators, over hundreds of thousands of years their solitude has also turned them into the most vicious fighters of all deer. Primarily they kick, with hooves much larger and sharper than an elk's.

But before moose get mad enough to kick, they act like dogs. The ears go back, the long hair along the neck and hump flares, and they may even growl or roar. The other large ungulates of Yellowstone simply don't put on such a show.

Elk would rather run than fight, and although their threat posture vaguely resembles a moose's, elk don't use it except at very close range. Bison often don't give any indication they're peeved before attacking. A bison can lie there, chewing its cud, while some M.B.A. type tosses sticks in its face, then rise and charge so quickly that the dolt barely has time to turn away. (This is the reason most Yellowstone chargees end up with what the local press euphemistically calls "a wound in the upper thigh"-a horn in the butt.)

Even annoyed bears often don't speak a language understood by wilderness wanna-bes. When pressed a little too closely, they first turn their heads away, as if finding the horizon quite interesting. But an angry moose immediately begins to imitate a 1,000-pound German shepherd that wants you the hell out of its yard. This makes the situation perfectly clear, even to the average greenhorn.

Most, anyway. One summer day I parked in the "moose-viewing area" above Indian Creek, south of the Gardiner entrance to Yellowstone. A dozen cars were already there, surrounded by eager tourists pointing binoculars and fingers toward the streamside brush. A cow moose and her 300-pound calf stood among the willows, peacefully browsing, 150 yards from the parking lot. This wasn't close enough for one guy dressed in a Miami Dolphins T-shirt and hiking shorts. It was plain to the rest of us that mama was annoyed by the time he'd walked within 30 yards, but Mr. Miami kept on and got charged by a moose with pinned-back ears and a mouth full of big yellow choppers. He turned to run and tripped in the creek, floundering while the moose took her calf and left. Dripping mud, he gasped up to the parking lot. "She was gonna eat me!" he saito his wife, who didn't seem concerned.

He was lucky; only a couple of years ago a Montana man died after a lone cow beat him up. The moose had wandered into a small ski town during winter, and the guy kept annoying it with his camera. Finally the cow felt cornered and stomped him.

Bull moose will "come for you" too, though not as often as cows. Magazine stories about charging moose were quite the trend for a couple of decades after World War II. The first outdoor magazine I ever bought, back in 1963, had a cover painting of a red-eyed bull bearing down on a red-plaid rifleman. I simply had to purchase a subscription with my paper-route money. Part of the reason for this spate of mad moose might have been millions of war veterans who, after four years of industrial-age carnage, found stories of hunting whitetails in Uncle Wilbert's apple orchard a little tame.

It's No Bull
Recently I attended a hunting show where dozens of outfitters had booths. I stopped to talk to an Alaskan I know, who admitted he often hyped the experience of grunting to rutting bulls. "I tell the boys to shoot straight, otherwise we'll get stomped. I don't carry a rifle and they think I'm really brave!"

Rutting bulls are imposing. My little town borders a few square miles of state game-management land along the Missouri River. This is perfect moose habitat, filled with willows and alders. Last fall my half-breed Labrasetter and I were hunting grouse down there in early September, the beginning of the moose rut, when I saw a cow standing in a side channel of the river about 75 yards away. And then a big, black, thick-necked bull stepped out of the brush, even closer. Upon seeing us, he stood sideways and in slow motion tilted his antlers our way. This is moose bragging, to both cows and rival bulls. He was justifiably proud, with close to 4 feet of antler spread, large for a bull of the Shiras subspecies. I was grateful my dog didn't run up to visit. Gideon really likes horses but somehow knew this bull was not a horse in a funny hat.

The truth is that even big bulls would rather run than fight. In the 1950s my father's brother Larry was hunting elk in the Gravelly Mountains, not far from Yellowstone, following an ancient logging road. He eventually encountered a dead Douglas fir too thick to step over. Larry started to crawl over the trunk and almost landed on a huge, dark animal bedded on the other side. He instantly thought, Grizzly!

Instead a bull moose rose, his big nose blowing moose mucus in Larry's face. Larry started running back the way he'd come, after a few yards looking over his shoulder to see the rear end of the moose already 100 yards away. "That moose could step right over deadfall as high as my chest!"

They're built for it, with incredibly long legs; it's the reason that moose escape cover (as biologists term it) normally consists of jumbled timber with lots of deadfall. Moose trot gracefully through such stuff, whereas predators (whether wolf or human) use enormous amounts of energy going over the obstacles.

Moose Vs. Vehicle
Those legs are involved in the second motivation to respect moose. People driving through moose country sometimes hit one. This is not like hitting a deer, or even an Angus cow. Moose have such long legs that their bodies usually roll over the hood and into the windshield of passenger vehicles, even 3/4-ton pickup trucks with big tires. Humans usually don't survive, though moose sometimes do.

One bad moose road is the long straight stretch of Montana 191 north of West Yellowstone. For 15 miles it passes through a narrow lane hacked out of thick conifers. I was leaving West Yellowstone just after dark one September when the headlights of an approaching vehicle flickered, and not as if the driver was turning them on and off. I slowed, and the oncoming headlights flickered again. Soon my pickup's headlights revealed several ghost-gray legs, then the black bodies of a cow and bull moose. Their walking legs had made the approaching lights flicker. What if that other car hadn't been approaching?

Some highways, both out West and in New England, have so many moose accidents that they carry moose crossing signs. These are among the most frequently stolen highway signs; the Montana Highway Department eventually gave up replacing them in the upper Bitterroot Valley.

Which is why the stretch of Canadian four-lane known as Moose Alley, heading northwest out of Edmonton toward Peace River, has a moose-crossing sign much larger than a life-size Alberta bull, welded to heavy steel posts. Pack that, sign thief!

Circumpolar Moose
Moose (Alces alces) are a circumpolar species, meaning they live across the northern hemisphere wherever there's suitable habitat. Like other circumpolar deer-such as caribou (reindeer) and elk (red deer)-they vary noticeably in size, coloration, and antler conformation. The moose of Scandinavia are lighter-colored than Asian or North American moose, typically brown with white legs rather than black with gray legs, and their antlers are also much less palmated, often round-beamed like an elk's.

Comparing moose antlers to elk antlers might confuse a European, because their moose are the original elk (or elg, alg, or elch, depending on the language). Our "elk" received its name from early English colonists; the biggest deer they'd ever seen were the miniature red deer of the British Isles. When they found 700-pound wapiti up and down the East Coast from Georgia to New York, they figured these must be the giant "elk" they'd heard of.

Moose as Main Course
"Moose" is derived from the animal's Ojibwa-Cree name, mooswa, which brings us to the third way that moose get respect. Since they migrated to North America about 10,000 years ago, moose have always been the largest source of animal protein in the broad belt of boreal forest that crosses our continent south of the Arctic tundra. Hence, moose were revered by the people who lived in the forest, just as bison were revered by Plains Indians and caribou by the Inuit.

Eventually, of course, those Moose Culture tribes were shoved around and sometimes replaced by other humans from Europe. But these Europeans also instantly recognized moose as a very large package of tasty, nutritious protein. (In fact, moose meat tested in laboratories has shown less fat content than any other wild game in North America, and about half that of the leanest domestic meat, turkey breast.) As a result the Moose Culture is alive and well, if somewhat more diverse than when dominated by the Cree and Ojibwa.

Wherever moose live, people like to hunt and eat them. In many parts of the remote North, "getting your moose" my pickup's headlights revealed several ghost-gray legs, then the black bodies of a cow and bull moose. Their walking legs had made the approaching lights flicker. What if that other car hadn't been approaching?

Some highways, both out West and in New England, have so many moose accidents that they carry moose crossing signs. These are among the most frequently stolen highway signs; the Montana Highway Department eventually gave up replacing them in the upper Bitterroot Valley.

Which is why the stretch of Canadian four-lane known as Moose Alley, heading northwest out of Edmonton toward Peace River, has a moose-crossing sign much larger than a life-size Alberta bull, welded to heavy steel posts. Pack that, sign thief!

Circumpolar Moose
Moose (Alces alces) are a circumpolar species, meaning they live across the northern hemisphere wherever there's suitable habitat. Like other circumpolar deer-such as caribou (reindeer) and elk (red deer)-they vary noticeably in size, coloration, and antler conformation. The moose of Scandinavia are lighter-colored than Asian or North American moose, typically brown with white legs rather than black with gray legs, and their antlers are also much less palmated, often round-beamed like an elk's.

Comparing moose antlers to elk antlers might confuse a European, because their moose are the original elk (or elg, alg, or elch, depending on the language). Our "elk" received its name from early English colonists; the biggest deer they'd ever seen were the miniature red deer of the British Isles. When they found 700-pound wapiti up and down the East Coast from Georgia to New York, they figured these must be the giant "elk" they'd heard of.

Moose as Main Course
"Moose" is derived from the animal's Ojibwa-Cree name, mooswa, which brings us to the third way that moose get respect. Since they migrated to North America about 10,000 years ago, moose have always been the largest source of animal protein in the broad belt of boreal forest that crosses our continent south of the Arctic tundra. Hence, moose were revered by the people who lived in the forest, just as bison were revered by Plains Indians and caribou by the Inuit.

Eventually, of course, those Moose Culture tribes were shoved around and sometimes replaced by other humans from Europe. But these Europeans also instantly recognized moose as a very large package of tasty, nutritious protein. (In fact, moose meat tested in laboratories has shown less fat content than any other wild game in North America, and about half that of the leanest domestic meat, turkey breast.) As a result the Moose Culture is alive and well, if somewhat more diverse than when dominated by the Cree and Ojibwa.

Wherever moose live, people like to hunt and eat them. In many parts of the remote North, "getting your moose"