By Jenny Neyman
Alaska Department of Fish and Game personnel have many tools and techniques available to deal with wildlife problems, but bridging the human-animal conversation barrier isn’t one of them. That’s proving particularly unfortunate in recent weeks on the central Kenai Peninsula, as deep snows and scant available browse are putting hungry moose increasingly in contact with people.
“Sometimes you wish you could do the ‘Dr. Doolittle’ thing and just explain things to them,” said Larry Lewis, wildlife technician for Fish and Game. “These animals, moose, are nothing to trifle with. It just floors me whenever I see a picture of somebody hand-feeding one, or getting to close to them. They need to be respected for the size and capabilities they have.”
If he could, Lewis would explain to moose being fed by well-meaning people that they shouldn’t associate humans with free meals. Or when he has to go deal with the repercussions of those associations, that he could just tell the moose he’s called out to disentangle, haze off or worse, that he’s doing it for their own good. Instead, he does what situations warrant with the moose, and attempts explanations with the people.
“It’s clearly, by regulation, illegal to intentionally feed a moose or to negligently feed a moose. You have to take that in the context of the meaning behind the regulation, which was for the purposes of public safety and the health of that animal,” Lewis said.
Moose on the central Kenai Peninsula are suffering through a tough winter with little left to eat. Deep snow — even before Sunday’s accumulation — makes it difficult and tiring for moose to travel, and covers up vegetation to eat. With pickings of preferred willow and birch browse already slim in the area, moose are having a difficult time keeping up with the 2-percent-of-body-weight amount of food they should eat a day to stay healthy. Lewis said that the department has already confirmed reports of moose starvations, finding poor body condition and severely depleted bone marrow, an indication of a lack of adequate nutrition.
“We’re losing a lot of calves right now, and unless things change drastically between now and green-up, we’re probably going to see some adults start to succumb to nutritional stress,” Lewis said. “Especially around the Kenai-Soldotna area, if you go out and look and you eliminate spruce and alder and see what’s left out there for these animals to forage on, there’s not a whole lot.”
Area residents sometimes develop a soft heart toward the big-eyed, long-legged
creatures, but Lewis cautions that while there are responsible and legal ways to help, there are decidedly irresponsible and illegal ways, as well.
“I always say, do not do anything with a moose that you would not do with a brown bear. I’ve got pictures of people hand-feeding moose, and I say that is every bit as dangerous as hand-feeding a brown bear,” Lewis said.
The Kenai Peninsula chapter of Safari Club International recently started promoting a tree-cutting effort to encourage regrowth of moose browse, cutting off overbrowsed and clubbed willow and birch trees so there will be more new growth for moose to eat next winter.
That’s a great way to help, Lewis said, as long as it’s done away from human development.
“If you have a place where you can get away from all homes, roads and all areas where people are going to walk or recreate, by all means go out there and cut trees down. You can look at that as habitat improvement or wood gathering. However you want to couch it, it’s perfectly fine and acceptable and I’d recommend it, but it has to be done in such a way that it doesn’t create a public safety issue,” he said.
Intentionally feeding a moose in Alaska is a Class A misdemeanor, and negligently
feeding a moose — leaving dog food out or garbage unsecured, for instance — can result in a $300 fine. But helping Mother Nature feed moose by trimming trees is legal, as long as it’s done on one’s own property or with permission from a property owner.“You can’t just go out and whack your neighbor’s trees down and call it good,” Lewis said.
Trimming trees will chum in ever-browsing moose, and that’s not something Lewis recommends for in-town neighborhoods, near busy streets or anywhere with high volumes of people. Because once moose find food, they are loath to leave it.
“If they find a food patch they’re going to hunker down, they’re going to expend as little energy as possible and they’re going to lie there and hope that life gets better for themselves,” Lewis said. “You go out and cut these trees down in your yard, you’ve got moose out there browsing on it. That may seem all well and good until the school kids come walking by on the street and that moose decides they’re too close to her and she defends her space.”
Just that sort of situation occurred recently in a neighborhood in Kenai. Moose, not
unlike people on a packed airplane, have a bubble of personal space that they don’t like breached, particularly when they’re stressed and hungry. That allowable distance can vary from animal to animal, and the circumstances under which a moose will defend its space also are unpredictable.
Moose may seem docile from a distance, but consider again the plane analogy — a middle-seat passenger on a full-passenger plane with only one bag of trail mix to last an entire, cross-country flight. Stressful, uncomfortable situations can make the transition between napping and snapping nearly instantaneous.
Lewis responded to a report of a girl being chased and stomped by a cow moose as she was walking to her school bus stop. She sustained a cut and bruises. The girl’s father went after the moose with a knife, only to have the moose kick it out of his hand, Lewis said.
When Lewis was investigating, he got the suspicion that the moose may have been emboldened by past interactions with people.
“I can’t prove it, but I’ve got a sneaking hunch that that animal is approaching people because it’s learned that humans mean food, and it’s in poor winter condition and it’s going to seek food and approach this little girl. And that’s a clear example of the process that happens and the public safety issue that ensues from feeding moose,” Lewis said.
Another recent call to Kenai involved Lewis hazing a moose away from a busy public space. Roads, plowed parking lots and other maintained spaces can mean easier walking for moose when snow piles up, and if their visit is rewarded with food, they’re more likely to stick around.
“Because of the association that animal made with people and food it was approaching people, and that became a public safety issue. I hazed the animal away, and I wasn’t very popular with the people that were there watching this, but we put human life and safety over the life and safety of that animal,” Lewis said.
A similar situation occurred at Fred Meyer in Soldotna earlier this winter, when calves
started feeding on ornamental vegetation by the store’s entryway. “To their credit, the store removed the yews they were eating and the moose went away,” Lewis said.
But, meanwhile, someone came and dumped a bale of hay in the parking lot outside the side entrance by the electronics department. That drew a moose back to the store. Lewis hazed the moose off twice, while a lot attendant brought shopping carts to gather up and remove the hay.
“Someone was well-meaning but they jeopardized human life and safety by doing that,” Lewis said.
On Feb. 21, Lewis had one of his most exciting moose calls of the winter. In his line of work, “exciting” usually means at least “dangerous,” and often includes an injury or the imminent threat of one.
Fish and Game started getting reports Feb. 20 of a cow moose on Kaknu Way near Kenai Middle School with patio chairs stuck on its head. Brandi Ivy saw the moose Feb. 21 between her house and a neighbor’s when she went out to walk her dog. She quickly restrained her 120-pound Mastiff mix, Titan, for fear he would approach the moose, then took a better look at the moose’s strange condition.
“At first I couldn’t see, I wasn’t quite sure what was on it. I got a camera out and zoomed in and a friend pointed out it was the arm of the chair she was stuck through. I thought it was wire wrapped around her neck and the chair was stuck to that wire. I was shocked. ‘How did she maneuver that?’ But they obviously can get into the littlest places,” Ivy said.
Lewis dealt with the moose outside Ivy’s home.
“(The stack of chairs) was on there such that it wasn’t coming off by itself. I actually had to bend the cartilage of her ear and stuff it through the chair to get it off her. She was not happy,” Lewis said.
Lewis was reluctant to dart and tranquilize the moose. If he used drugs on her and something happened in the next 30 days — she was hit by a car, sustained lethal injuries or became so aggressive that she had to be killed — the meat wouldn’t be allowed for human consumption. Instead, Lewis used a wildlife-specific Taser to subdue her. She fell into a bit of a hollow with her legs out to her side, unable to stand back up, giving Lewis an opportunity to approach.
“I kind of braced her nose up on my head and put my foot on her shoulder and kind of held her down a little bit and took the chairs off her. We actually ended up with a tow rope having to put it around her neck and help roll her up on her feet, at which point she came after me and put me in a shed for a little while. One of the thoughtful neighbors came over with his truck and helped kind of move her off a little bit so I could get out of the shed. She wasn’t very appreciative,” he said.
Not that he could blame her.
“I wouldn’t be very happy with that either,” he said.
Ivy said the moose hung around her house for the next three days, mostly lying in the snow but occasionally walking a bit in search of food. Ivy’s 3-year-old daughter, Heidi, took to calling the visitor “Lucy the Moosey,” and the family had to greet it accordingly every time they left the house. Ivy said she made sure to take Titan out on the opposite side of the house, always on a leash, to make sure he didn’t disturb “Lucy.”
Lewis checked back on the moose Feb. 22. Though she was lying low and conserving energy, she seemed to be fine, Lewis said. As he was observing the moose, a woman drove up with a bag of apples with which she said she planned to feed the moose. Lewis explained both the legal and public safety ramifications of why that wasn’t a good idea.
“These people that want to do that, their heart’s in the right place. I can understand they have sympathy for that animal. In many cases maybe they have empathy for it, maybe they’ve been hungry in their life. For whatever reason they want to help that animal, but it’s not helping. You can’t possibly fulfill the nutritional requirements and needs from a bag of apples or handful of bread, and actually it can be harmful to the animal in that it can create that habituation process where it relates food to human presence and actually approaches people, and those animals wind up being killed,” Lewis said.
If anyone does want to help moose through the winter, there are a few things they can do.
For one, clean up and secure any items around the house that a moose may become stuck in, no matter how unlikely the threat of entanglement may seem. There’s a wall in the Fish and Game shop adorned with items removed from moose that attests to how anything can become a hazard — swing sets, a tin can, the patio chairs, a ladder, a tomato cage, various lengths of wire, a stool, plastic fencing, a water jug. There isn’t even room for all the tires they’ve pulled off moose, Lewis said.
Stacking potentially hazardous items up against the house for winter not only is not good enough, it’s actually more dangerous for moose.
“The first place that thaws is up against the house, so if you’ve got stuff sitting there, they’ll come up and stick their head through it to get to the vegetation that’s left over from last fall or emerging in the spring and we have entanglements. So that’s something proactive people can do is get those obstructions and possible entanglements away from the house, get them secured,” he said.
Also make sure that garbage is secured, Lewis said. There have already been reports of moose digging into Dumpsters looking for food, and they can be indiscriminant munchers.
“They can ingest plastic bags. That will plug up the stomach of a ruminant like a moose
and it kills them. They can’t expel waste and they die. It’s a slow, I can only imagine, agonizing way to die,” Lewis said.
If there is a moose hanging around a home, Lewis advises leaving it alone as much as possible, especially making sure dogs and other pets don’t approach it. If a moose happens to die on someone’s property, give Fish and Game a call. Fish and Game has a relationship with trappers in the area, who have a special permit to come remove carcasses and use them for trapping bait. Legally, the animal is considered state property and is not available for harvest even by the property owner — not that anyone should want to use it for consumption, for humans or even dogs.
“The golden rule is if you don’t know what killed it, don’t eat it. If it’s a starvation death the meat’s not going to be very palatable,” Lewis said.
If a moose is being aggressive, give law enforcement or Fish and Game a call. But otherwise, Lewis recommends letting a lounging moose lie. The less energy they expend, the better chance they have of making it through the rest of the winter.
“My best advice for people who have moose around their yards is to be very careful but have patience,” Lewis said. “Realize that you live in Alaska and we’ve got all these animals we live with and they’re trying to get by as best they can this winter, so the less stress we can put on them, the better.”