Imagine standing amongst the willows next to a creek while wearing a thick black fur coat. While that might be just fine in February or even during this cold spell we’re in now, imagine doing it in the middle of August on a bright sunny day.

Such is the world for one of the planet’s largest mammals: the moose. Bulls weigh in around 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, while cows tip the scale around 900 pounds. Their warm fur has two layers: a soft wooly undercoat and an outer coat with hollow hairs that increase insulation in the winter and buoyancy in the summer. That buoyancy is handy since moose often swim and hang out in the water to cool down in the heat of summer.

It is this adaptation to cold weather that keeps moose, or Alces alces, in the northern regions of North America and Eurasia. Moose don’t fare well when summer temperatures get above 57 degrees or when winter temperatures are higher than 23 degrees.

In North America, moose are limited mostly to areas along and north of the US-Canadian border. There is a lobe that drops down along the Idaho-Montana border, into western Wyoming and extending as far south as western Colorado. This lobe includes moose in the Snowy Range and on Pole Mountain.

Moose didn’t get in southeast Wyoming of their own accord; man lent a helping hand. According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website, in 1978, Colorado wildlife managers transplanted 12 moose to the North Park region near Walden. Another dozen were added the next year, and 12 more in 1987. From there, the moose thrived and roamed into the mountains of southeast Wyoming.

Moose made their initial appearance here in 1981 when one was reported on Sheep Mountain. Since then they’ve expanded north to the Rock Creek area and even north of Interstate 80. They’ve headed west to the western slope of the Sierra Madre Mountains near Jack Creek, and east to Pole Mountain.

In spite of our temperatures being a tad on the warm side, moose population appears to be doing well in the Snowy Range and on Pole Mountain. Actual population counts are tricky since the moose tend to hang out in the timber or in dense vegetation, making a tally difficult.

Since 2015 the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute coordinates both a summer and winter Moose Day where volunteers traverse pre-determined routes and record any moose they see.

Mason Lee, senior project coordinator of the Biodiversity Institute, said the latest data on moose in the Snowy Range and Pole Mountain indicate populations are fairly stable, despite moose declining in other parts of their range in Wyoming.

“They’ve attributed this stability to the population’s recent colonization of the area,” Lee said. “Also, there is a lack of predators such as wolves and grizzlies. That doesn’t mean the population is out of the woods yet, so to speak, as recent changes in the landscape by the bark beetle, as well as climate change, could have a negative impact.”

Through the six years of the biannual surveys, moose observations ranged from a high of 40 in 2016 and a low of 2 in 2018. While such systematic observation routes help in keeping track of moose trends, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department also attempts to determine moose populations in conjunction with the setting of hunting seasons and permit numbers.

According to a 2020 Department report prepared by Teal Cufaude, wildlife biologist for the Laramie District, the three-year trend count average from 2018 to 2020 was 118 moose for the Snowy Range herd. The 2020 trend survey resulted in the lowest count of 67 moose, but that count was likely skewed by the number of observers and flight timing.

Impacts from the Mullen Fire last summer, which burned 176,800 acres in the Snowy Range including a substantial portion of the Snowy Range moose herd unit, are just starting to be examined. Ongoing studies point to the importance of small wet meadow complexes where the moose forage, and also where they seek a means for cooling down.

Meanwhile, spring means young calf moose will arrive soon. Cow moose are especially protective of their young. Moose evolved with wolves in the far north and, consequently, they’ve learned to aggressively defend their young against potential predators. Give moose a wide berth, observing them only from a distance, but enjoy this unique animal that only fairly recently became a part of southeast Wyoming’s wildlife ecosystem.

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