August 26, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
While flying to find moose in the middle of August, I couldn't help remembering what it used to be like to bake in the black interior of my old Ford Torino during the heat of the summer.
It was plenty warm in the cozy confines of the little two-place aircraft by 11:00, when we were circling over our last radioed moose of the morning near Garnet Ghost Town. But, I was thinking about how much worse it might be for a moose clothed in an enormously heavy, black coat, looking forward to an afternoon temperature of nearly 90 degrees.
Of course, comparing human behavior with the adaptations of wild animals is like comparing my old Torino with a Ferrari. Only a humana juvenile male, to be precisewould buy a car with a black interior, paint the exterior black, and then climb inside, position the vehicle and human on black pavement, and drive slowly around town all day with the sun beating down.
Moose don't do that.
In fact, my pilot and I didn't see a single moose all morning, even though we fixed the exact positions of 17 radioed individuals in the Garnet Mountains. Without exception, our study specimens were in thick shade, while the humans circled overhead in constant and direct sunlight, in an enclosed cockpit with a sunroof.
Worry no more about moose in the summer. Worry instead about humans without the sense God gave a moose.
I guess that's why the University of Montana, U. S. Bureau of Land Management, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks set out to learn more about moose sense back in 1997, when the Garnet Moose Study was begun. Many of you know Milo Burcham, the long, lean and engaging project biologist for the moose study, who by the way recently engaged himself all the way into marriage. I'm an indirect beneficiary of Milo's honeymoon to Alaska. While Milo's gone, I get to play Icarus and keep track of his radioed moose.
As it turns out, they're not that challenging to keep track of. I seemed to find each radioed moose in pretty much the same area as Milo did two weeks ago. Seldom was it necessary to cover more than a two-mile radius around a previous moose location to find its current location.
This proved true for bulls as well as cows. And, with nine bulls radioed, the sample size is large enough to reveal at least the most obvious sex-specific patterns, if there are any.
How else do moose compensate for being huge and dark-colored in summer? Well, maybe it comes as no surprise that Milo's moose live near cool water. But, if you're seeing the flatwater streams and large ponds of Yellowstone Park in your imagination, you'd be surprised to see what passes for moose water in the Garnets. Typically, we found moose along very small seeps and springs that we could barely identify as such from our elevated vantagepoint.
And, if you think of broad, willow flats when you think of moose, think instead of jumbled, forested, rock fields too miserable to log when you think of moose in the Garnets. Or, think of a few acres of standing timber in a large clearcut. Or, just think of any kind of mountainous terrain where some conifers provide shade near a strip of moisture and moisture-loving shrubs. I'm not sure it matters whether the conifers and moisture are on the top of the mountain or on the bottom. (Today, most moose were between 5,500 and 7,000 feet in elevation.)
Maybe it's because water is so sparse and scattered that moose appear to be loners in the Garnets. Even though the 17 radioed moose occupy the same 100 square-mile study area, we never found two radioed animals together in the same location, as you would expect with elk. In areas of the country where moose live in expansive wetland areas, moose do group together more than they do in Milo's study area.
As a rookie in the business of moose research, my one day of radio-tracking experience makes me wonder if you could estimate the moose population size by simply mapping out all the little creeks and springs in the Garnets and dividing by the area of streamside habitat required per animal. I'll be sure to share this and other valuable pearls of wisdom with Milo when he comes back to reclaim his study in a few weeks.