Moose declines puzzling. Habitat, malnutrition, predators play roles

I think the studies show Jackson Hole moose are slowly starving-

There is a story in today’s Jackson Hole News and Guide. Moose declines puzzling. Habitat, malnutrition, predators play roles. By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, WY

I don’t see much evidence of direct population depression from predation, especially wolf predation, here.  Predators do disproportionately take animals that are starving.  Both Joel Berger and later Scott Becker found that by far the largest mortality source of female moose in Jackson Hole was starvation.  The poor condition of female moose is also shown by the reduction in the number of twins produced from 10% to less than 5%.”

As far as much quoted B.J. Hill,  local outfitter,”[who] thinks habitat loss is exaggerated and says “I’ve watched moose literally live off of pine needles,” I say everyone knows that moose eat conifer in the winter in deep snow areas.  First, however, moose need a balanced diet the entire year and second, the conifer are dying.  Article after article after article has appeared about the vast disease and beetle kill of pines and other conifers from the Yukon to New Mexico.

Hill claims to live in the mountains every day. Why then didn’t he notice that beginning in 1988 and a number of years thereafter, most of Teton Wilderness burned? The conifers are gone. I wrote two guides to the Teton Wilderness — one came out in the early 1980s and second in 2000. Many more pine have died of insects since then.  Any damn fool that has spent time there can see that the ecology of the place has been transformed.



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  1. monty Avatar

    How are moose doing in other areas like Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Idaho or even Oregon where they have recently migrated to? If this is a climate change issue, then moose might be declining in these other places.

    1. ProWolf in WY Avatar
      ProWolf in WY

      I think that’s the question that needs to be asked.

    2. Carl Avatar

      Monty, the moose population in Minnesota and the upper pennisula of Michigan have been in decline for a few years now. In both states the DNR has been conducting studies to determine why. The population in NW Minnesota has dropped from around 4000 animals to around a hundred in the last 10 years. Although the studies are still going on the MN DNR is pointing at warmer temperatures being a problem.

    3. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      That is incredibly bad news for MN moose, but thanks for the information.

    4. R.N.T. Avatar

      Moose seem to be doing poorly in all of western Montana as well. In central Montana the moose population seems to be maintaining if not growing, and in north central Montana the moose population is growing rapidly.

  2. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    A key factor left out of the discussions of moose in and around Jackson Hole is the impact of elk feedgrounds on moose habitat–specifically, the fact that too many elk are overbrowsing willows and other riparian vegetation that are the moose’s primary forage. There is of course feeding on the National Elk Refuge, and there are three feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre drainage as well as a large feedground south of Jackson at South Park as well as a smaller feedground at Horse Creek near the Hoback turnoff.

    In all of these areas, elk have done considerable damage to riparian vegetation. (This damage is documented in Dr. Bruce Smith’s book Imperfect Pastures. Smith retired as the senior scientist at the Refuge about four years ago. Another problem he documents is that destruction of riparian habitat by elk affects neotropical songbirds that rely on riparian vegetation in the summer).

    One reason for elk overbrowsing is that the alfalfa pellets that are fed to elk on the Refuge provide no roughage. so elk hit the willows hard after the high protein pellets. G&F feeds hay to elk on the state feedgrounds, which does provide roughage, but elk, once fed, lay up off the feedgrounds in riparian areas, and browse to their heart’s content.

    Gee, who’d have thought elk were a threat to moose.


    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      I meant to add what Robert Hoskins wrote about elk eating the browse around the feedgrounds.

      Normally people don’t think of elk as browsers, but that isn’t quite right.

      It is worthwhile to have the observations not just of people who are “out there,” but who have been out there a long time and who also remember the way things change by season, locale. and over the long haul.

  3. Cody Coyote Avatar

    There is also a long article entitled” Crying Wolf” by Jake Nichols in this week’s edition of Planet Jackson Hole, or the Jackson Hole weekly , whichever you prefer. May 12 edition , lead story.

    ( I also posted it in Uncategorized since it’s really not about Moose )

  4. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    There is also a certain contingent of people running around saying that the moose are being heavily affected due to brucellosis infections, which can be fatal to moose, of course I have not seen any studies to back this up, but it is something I have seen on other blogs.

  5. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    If I recall correctly, one moose in Wyoming has been documented as having died from brucellosis. Don’t remember the date. The assumption is that it’s therefore inevitably fatal to moose but to my knowledge it hasn’t been studied, so all it is is an assumption. There’s also been one moose found dead of chronic wasting disease, near Forest Park Feedground in the Greys River drainage. That was around two years ago.


    1. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      Hi Robert,

      Of course, I have studied brucellosis quite a bit in my work with Bison, but have never seen a study to back the claim about Moose, so I thought I would throw it out there and see if anyone else has seen something..I, based on my experience, find it to be a bit of a smoke screen type argument..

    2. Robert Hoskins Avatar
      Robert Hoskins


      I suppose it’s possible brucellosis is a problem for moose; G&F has documented an overall 7% loss of elk calves to brucellosis on the feedgrounds, although that hasn’t affected overall elk population numbers. In elk, as in cattle, a brucellosis infected heifer has a 50% chance of aborting her first calf, but the risk goes down considerably with subsequent pregnancies.

      It’s just that no one’s shown much interest in pursuing the question in moose.


  6. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears


    Maybe I should write up a grant proposal and we could study it! Could keep us in funds and busy for a while working in the field instead of behind a computer!


    1. Robert Hoskins Avatar
      Robert Hoskins

      Sounds good to me. I’ve got no funding for this summer. The costs of integrity.

      Not laughing at all (NLAA) …


  7. jon Avatar

    Smith calls for moderation. “There are extremists’ views at both sides. Portraying wolves as the devil incarnate and saying the elk will be gone and hunting will end – it’s hogwash.

    I couldn’t have said it better than Smith.

  8. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    Bison eat a lot of browse also. In fact there is one herd (200 head) in Alaska that depends on willow for 90% of their diet during the winter. My herd here in Iowa eats willow to get rid of worms.
    I’d say the transplanted and dysfunctional plains bison of Teton Park are having more than normal impact on riparian areas. Now if those elk and bison herds were functional families then we would not see this damage. “Home” to those extended families means distance between the different families…..And between these territories is no mans land…and this is where moose natural niches would be pre Whiteman.
    And if the bison of Teton were the naturally wary mt. bison that once occupied Jackson Hole (only ones left are in Yell. Pelican Valley) one would see even less “damage”.

    Today’s state and federal game managers are no more than pig farmers. Throw in a Billy hill composite, a person whose bias doesn’t allow seeing anything objectively in the woods…no matter how long he is in those woods…and all these herd animals we talk of don’t have a respectful chance of anything but symptom management forced upon them.

  9. jon Avatar

    “I’ve watched moose literally live off of pine needles,” BJ Hill is a funny guy. lol

    1. Cody Coyote Avatar

      Let’s hoodwink a video producer into doing a reality-based show on BJ Hill. ” Survivor: Wyoming”. They can film him living in the woods for an entire year , starting out with only a Swiss Army knife, a few Bic lighters or red tipped matches , a hand axe and folding shovel (we’re being gratuitous with those last items), and only the Cabela’s clothes on his back. We may take pity and allow him some designer mirrored sunglasses.

      I’m pretty sure BJ will soon tire of nuts and berries and raw jackrabbits. He will begin breaking into cabins, stealing from camps, hitting on chicken coops, and trying real hard to whack one of those stupid ‘slow elk’ cows and tempting sheep because he ain’t had much luck with fleet-of-foot Bambi’s.

      In other words, he will become The Wolfman. He will start behaving and living just like a wolf.

      Canis Loopdeloopus.

      (I forget. Wasn’t he the outfitter who claimed he was afraid of the wilderness. Or was that another of his ilk ? )

    2. WM Avatar


      Who is the us (let’s) and the we (we’re) identified in your scenario? And, I’m just a bit confused about the transition to “The Wolfman,” is it? I have yet to see a four legged wolf with a Bic lighter.

      I thought BJ Hill was one of your buddies. You bailing on him, or just getting a little ethereal?

  10. Thomas Moore Avatar
    Thomas Moore

    Please take note that the Moose population in New York State, Massachusetts, Vermont, Northern Connecticut, New Hampshire (especially NYS ) is exploding.

    1. WM Avatar

      ++…. Moose population in New York State, Massachusetts, Vermont, Northern Connecticut, New Hampshire (especially NYS ) is exploding.++

      They have no wolves to contol the exoloding numbers. I know a cure for that and willing donor(s).

    2. TC Avatar

      The moose population in SE Wyoming is doing relatively well and both growing and spreading slowly (Snowy Range, Sierra Madre range, and southern Laramie Range).

  11. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    It is certainly possible that the burgeoning bison population in Jackson Hole has had an impact on moose habitat of late. However, the problem of overbrowsing in both Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre, where one rarely finds bison, long predates the modern presence bison there.

    Olaus Murie was complaining about overbrowsing as early as 1941, when he made a big push against the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission to significantly reduce elk numbers on the National Elk Refuge for a variety of reasons, mainly disease (necrotic stomatitis) and elk damage to soils and vegetation. In a range survey, using the primitive survey techniques of the time, he established the carrying capacity of the NER to be 5000-5500 elk. (I’ve got a copy of the paper he presented to the North American Wildlife Conference about this on file). He eventually compromised at 7500 elk due to the opposition of the Commission to any reduction of the Jackson Elk Herd. However, if I recall correctly, there were only one or two years after when that even that higher number was met.

    In any case, the underlying problem is feeding elk and sustaining them in Jackson Hole and environs at abnormally high densities. I doubt bison add much to that.


    1. bob jackson Avatar
      bob jackson

      Present day I’d say bison haven’t near the impact in Jackson Hole on browse compared to the cause and effect of elk being fed.

      Now if “they” still feel they have to keep those elk feedlotted they at least could spread the feeding out over a large area. Then these elk could be weaned slowly from the govt. nipple.

    2. Robert Hoskins Avatar
      Robert Hoskins

      Agreed, but there’s obviously no interest in weaning elk off the government tit. Also sprach die Cowboyen. CWD, here we come.


  12. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    I had a successful moose hunt at Ditch Creek off the Gros Ventre in 1974. There was sure a high density then. Are these mostly local moose you are talking about? Do moose in that big willow meadow country along the upper Yellowstone above the lake (up past the Thorofare) move into Jackson Hole or mostly winter onsite?

    On a slightly different note, there’s an interesting migration pattern in moose found in the fall around Old Crow, YT – recently discovered from USFWS tagging and believed to be the longest known annual migration for moose. Some of the North slope valleys in the Arctic Refuge containing lots of willow are full of winter moose sign (droppings, shed antlers, skeletons, signs of heavy browsing) but its rare to run across a moose in the summer/fall. They basically do the reverse of the porcupine caribou herd and move from the Old Crow Flats to the north slope where its warmer in the winter with less snowfall and more wind to clear snow in places – and lots of willow. A major wintering site is Drain Creek, a very lush, seldom-visited valley off the Kongakut – 125 miles air miles from Old Crow.

  13. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson


    I ski patrolled the Thorofare country in the winter of ’74. Moose…and lots of them …. were mostly on the slopes above the valley. Moose numbers went down before the fires and the wolves in Thorofare. Way too many tags issued. How did F&G think they could issue 25 tags and think the population would stay up there? Retards, everyone of them.

  14. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    Thanks, Bob. I thought they probably did – partly judging from how they winter in the deep snow around Cooke City, and I imagine the ones in Pelican Creek stay around there too? When I was a kid in the 1960s, my mother who was a widowed school teacher with the summers off took me on three total 12-day summer pack trips in the Thorofare, sponsored by the Wilderness Society and operated by Ted and L.D. Frome (Afton). I kind of wonder if the Wilderness society is still doing such things given the impacts in the area from all the heavy use trails, camps, salting for elk, etc. you describe. I think there were about 60 animals total on the trips and some went well into the park around Heart Lake, Basin Creek, etc. Anyway, they said the horse I rode during one trip had been lost and left back there around Hawks Rest at the end of the hunting season the year before and found alive by a ranger (can’t remember if NPS or USFS) the next spring.

  15. Bob of Wyoming Avatar
    Bob of Wyoming

    Sure, there are many and interrelated reasons for the declining moose populations in Wyoming, but – Wyo G&F has dragged its feet over the 19 years I’ve lived in Moose Area 17. They sadly have dropped the moose ball!They deserve more than a little blame!

    In the early 90s they allowed shooting cows. At least three calves died on our small place alone during those early winters – none had a mother in attendance! It became readily apparent 15 years ago that something was radically wrong with the moose population! Joel Berger was in the middle of his research. Year after year we were seeing less moose. Year after year WG&F kept issuing ridiculous numbers of licenses, but they finally did make it bulls only. According to the JHN&G article G&F will issue 25 tags this year down from 480 in 1990! Area 17 (Lower Gros Ventre/Spread Creek. gets only five tags in 2011. I seem to recall only a few years ago they issued 80!

    A question was posed by an outfitter (of all people) at a public meeting in Alpine, who was advocating closing moose hunting altogether for a couple of seasons to give the moose a chance to hold on. The response by a G&F Biologist as quoted in the JH News was, “…we cannot close the moose hunting season because our mission is to provide hunting opportunities”.

    Wyoming Game & Fish has reacted with far too little, far too late when in comes to protecting moose herds! “Our mission is to provide hunting opportunities”! That’s what the fool actually said – years ago when it wasn’t too late!

  16. Robert Avatar

    This fellow Hill sure gets his name in the paper SEVERAL times – every week – considering he spends “every day” in the woods”, or we might assume sleeping along the Gros Ventre Road at night with fifty other people – for protection from the wolves!
    Some might think him to be a “Bag O Wind Outfitter”, who is so used to playing up to dude hunters that he forgets folks in these mountains aren’t fools!

  17. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    It would be interesting to know how much of the apparent decline in indicators of nutrition is due to past browsing by high numbers moose (plus elk & bison) and how much other habitat changes driven by fire, climate, bugs, etc. as Ralph notes.

    In this area, we have several “newer” moose populations like NW Wyoming, with one in particular that has materialized out of nothing in the mid-1960’s to the point of becoming both precarious and very popular. There will no doubt be plenty of scorn, anger and finger pointing when it finally goes down, which it looked probable 3 years ago when it peaked at about 450 animals wintering on 6 square miles of willow surrounded on three sides by forest & mountains (Glacier National Park) and the other side by ocean (actually most of the forage base is on new land emerging out of the ocean at a glacial rebounding rate of 1.25 inches a year – people with beach front property defined by the mean high tide are becoming land barons). The season has been a pretty steady 50 bulls per year – season closed when filled – plus some drawing cow permits limited in the earlier years by public pressure. I’ve had no desire to participate as its derby situation with a lot of hunters packed in a small area. The willow gets hammered but seems able to maintain under incredible browsing pressure – in summer, most moose disperse into the surrounding forest in the park. When it reached its peak about 3 years ago, the area biologist managed to push though 90 cow permits amidst much public anger and disgust. Forage, nutrition (they measure rump fat on cows), reproduction, etc. were looking bad. A severe winter hit, with record snowfall of about 200 inches, and predators were finally starting to seriously key in, particularly on calves. It looked like the population wave had crested and was crashing and the surfer going to get maytagged. He ceased all cow permits after very heavy adult winter mortality and now the willow is starting to look good, nutrition, condition and pregnancy are up – population just over 300 animals. The wave seems to be gaining some steam again and the beach still aways off. Predators are continuing to key in more, but that’s not a bad thing with a public so grudging about doing their work for them

  18. buckaroo Avatar

    seems odd thou, we seem to have seen the same thing happening here in nw wyoming near the wyoming montana border ( crandal/cook city area) where the elk are not on a feed ground, seems to be more of an issue of the elk and moose being pushed around by the wolves so much they don’t get a chance to really relax and browse. it was really bad when the griz finally came out of hibernation and they were trying to find a place to calve. seems like three or four years of this has taken it’s tole finally.
    guess thats what happens when you put to many keystone predators into a confined area.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan