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Census 2000 (for moose)

February 10, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Milo Burcham
Wildlife Biologist
University of Montana


In the United States, we humans can look forward to getting counted every 10 years. It was written into our constitution that way, so that we would be represented fairly in Congress and everyone would be eligible for their share of federal benefits.

Well moose don't really have a constitution and don't have any representatives in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP), and rarely if ever get counted accurately. So when it comes time to dish out benefits (or issue hunting permits) we often really don't know much. We don't know how many animals are out there, how much habitat we need to accommodate them, or even how many we can harvest.

Just recently, as a part of the Garnet Moose Study, and with special support from Five Valleys Chapter of the Safari Club, FWP, and Plum Creek Timber Company, we had an opportunity to census moose in the Garnet Mountains. This is not an easy task and non-compliance runs high! If you think it might be tough for the Federal Government to count its human population, just try to count a wildlife population. But, there are some tricks.

In an effort to learn about habitat needs of moose in the Garnet Mountains, we have captured, radio collared, and followed 18 moose over the last 2 years. Although we are learning a lot about what habitats they like, we still have had very little idea about how many moose are out there.

A marked (radio-collared) sample of animals, however, is a great tool for estimating a population size. Basically, you go and count the animals as best you can, and then keep track of how many of your known marked animals you saw.

In early January, we hired a pilot and helicopter to do just that, and counted 44 moose in a portion of the Garnet Mountains. Included in these 44 moose were 9 that were wearing our radio collars, yet we know from radio-tracking that there are 13 radio-collared moose in that same area.

Assuming various things such as that radio-collared moose behave like other moose, and are within the count area, the proportion of the known radio collars is an indicator of how many of all the moose we counted.

On this count, we saw 69% (9 of 13) of our radio collared animals and from this, we might guess that we saw about 69% of the moose in the area that we flew. So, our estimate for the area we counted (not the entire Garnets) would be around 64 or minus a few, maybe quite a few. To become more confident of an estimate like this, the count would have to be repeated several times, and the results averaged.

Other notable findings from our count were a good sex ratio (19 females and 16 males) and many calves (9 of 19 females had calves), although no twins were observed. It's not often that we have an opportunity to obtain population estimates like this, but it is worthwhile when it can be done in conjunction with other projects, like the moose study. With this information, our wildlife and land managers, just like our Federal Government, will better be able to provide Abenefits@ for this moose population.

An interesting event occurred after this moose census took place. The Missoulian newspaper ran a feature on the moose census in their Outdoor section, and among those who read it was a man who recognized my name...Milo Burcham. Now, he knew that it could not be the same person he had known 60 years ago (I'm not quite 40), but wondered if I could be related.

I never met my grandfather Milo, but he was relatively well known prior to WWII for flying and training pilots in the P-38 Lightning. He was a test pilot for Lockheed but was killed in a plane crash when my dad was only 14, way back in 1944.

It turns out that a man in the Bitterroot valley, Ray Roberts, knew my grandfather and flew the P-38. The name he saw in the newspaper jogged his memory after more than half a century. He contacted me and expressed an interest in getting together to share a story or two, and find out how I made it to Montana.

Sometimes it pays to have a name that sticks out. I look forward to the visit!

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