The first time I ever laid eyes on a moose, I was lucky I didn’t get the snot kicked out of me. My wife and I were finishing up a mountain hike in Wyoming late one afternoon when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a big bull planted squarely in the middle of the trail. I was jittery about getting back to our car before dark, but the moose refused to budge. I hollered and clapped my hands. When that didn’t work, I tried to run him off. Then I heaved a chunk of wood at him. Finally, I gave up, and with some difficulty, we bushwhacked around him. Next day, an old-timer in Jackson Hole told me that although a moose may look like a dopey cartoon character, “it can stomp you into the ground quicker than you can say ‘Bullwinkle!’ ”
Now fast-forward 20 years to Anchorage, Alaska, where any number of people have learned that lesson the hard way. Michael Vogel, a 48-year-old chemist and avid outdoorsman, is one of them. Jogging near a local park last year, Vogel encountered a cow moose and her calf. Since they didn’t act perturbed, he decided to keep going. Suddenly, the cow charged, trampling him so severely he almost lost an eye and had to have part of his face rebuilt. “I wanted that animal killed,” Vogel told me when we talked in Anchorage last fall, “but the authorities did nothing. They don’t understand this is a city, not a wildlife theme park.”
Actually, it’s both. Coping with moose is a major theme of life in this booming little metropolis at the head of the picturesque Cook Inlet. Anchorage is stuck with more moose—well over 1,000 at one point earlier this year—than it can handle. Strolling around town, I saw them everywhere— bedded down next to a sewage-treatment plant near the TedStevensAnchorageInternationalAirport, lumbering across four lanes of rush-hour traffic on Minnesota Drive, silhouetted atop a hill in sprawling KincaidPark. One night, I discovered a female browsing with her two calves in the yard of a house on 15th Avenue not far from City Hall. The mother’s bony rump was even with my eyes and her head looked higher than the rim of a basketball hoop. The moose acted like they owned the place. When one calf’s ears snagged a string of tree lights, the leggy youngster nonchalantly tossed them off without missing a bite.
Anchorage is by no means the only municipality in Alaska with a multitude of moose, but it’s the biggest (pop. 271,000) and by far the most urbanized. “It has reached the point here where confrontations and other problems can’t be avoided,” says Page Spencer, an ecologist with the National Park Service. “Conflicts are inevitable.” According to Rick Sinnott, an amiable, soft-spoken wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), there might be fewer confrontations if people weren’t so careless: “Dog owners let their pets run loose, skiers get too close, kids throw snowballs. People don’t use common sense around moose.”
In a man-made environment of straight lines and artificial colors, an Alaskan moose, the most impressive of the four subspecies found in North America, is hard to miss. In the wild, though, you can easily overlook a 1,600-pound bull carrying a showy rack of antlers six feet wide. The moose’s dark coloration blends into almost any background, and the animal makes itself even more inconspicuous by not moving around much. Hiking in the NancyLake area north of Anchorage one day, my companions and I failed to notice a statuesque young bull standing quietly 100 feet away until it turned its head.
When these phlegmatic ungulates do move, it is usually with a regal deliberation the Alaskan writer Sherry Simpson calls “the strange grace of moose.” But they can explode into action if they have to. “You see this best when bulls fight out in the open during the fall rut,” says Vic Van Ballenberghe, a longtime moose researcher in DenaliNational Park. “I watched one terrific battle when the two of them went at each other like Ali and Frazier. The violence was unbelievable. Antlers were crashing, ten-foot-tall trees were getting knocked over. When one bull finally got the other one down, he kept goring him until the hair flew. You could have filled a shopping bag with all the hair on the ground.”
This largest member of the deer family crossed into Alaska from Siberia over the Bering Strait land bridge toward the conclusion of the last ice age, perhaps as recently as 11,000 to 14,000 years ago. By the end of the 1800s, habitat destruction and hunting had all but exterminated moose throughout much of their prehistoric range. Today, the combined U.S. and Canadian population is around one million, including approximately 150,000 in Alaska. Thanks to a fortuitous combination of circumstances—from controlled hunting and the demise of natural predators to successful reintroductions and habitat rejuvenation—many moose populations are once again thriving from New England and the upper Midwest to Wyoming and Montana.
To the indigenous people of the Far North, moose meant meat, and more. The hump of the nose, moosehead soup, pure moose grease, and flesh raw, boiled or broiled—all figured prominently in the Native diet. One researcher has calculated that a band of 100 Indians required 142.4 moose a year to survive. Moose hide was used for clothing, boat and lodge coverings, sinew for thread, and bones for tools. Some tribes believed moose had medicinal powers. “The savages . . . are cured by the hoof of its left hind leg,” wrote one early chronicler. “In this hoof there is certain marvelous and manifold virtue.”
The moose was a shrewd and dangerous quarry. Ablackand- white photograph taken during the early part of the last century shows the grisly aftermath of a doubly fatal encounter: bleached antlers and the skeleton of a bull moose lay next to a human skull and two upturned moccasins. More often than not, the shoe ended up on the other foot, so to speak, with the hunter rejoicing over his fallen prey. But another vintage photograph suggests that on at least one occasion, even a dead moose could exact retribution. The photograph depicts an individual identified only as an Alaskan “tenderfoot,” who said he slept inside a gutted moose carcass to keep warm one cold night. By the time he woke up, the carcass had frozen stiff, and the tenderfoot was trapped in it, he claimed, until a pack of wolves happened along and chewed him out.
Today moose remain an important “subsistence resource” for Natives and others still living in the Alaskan bush, and hunting them for sport has become a big business. Roughly 7,000 moose, mostly bulls, are “harvested” each year for their prized meat and trophy antlers. “Wolves and bears get 20 times as many,” says Sinnott. “But most of those are calves.” Bears go through moose calves the way geese gobble up grass. Van Ballenberghe says that a grizzly he kept track of in Denali some years ago killed three sets of newborn twins in two weeks. Even though Alaska’s predators and prey have been coexisting for millennia, hunters there are so concerned about the impact of bears and wolves on moose populations that last year the Alaska Board of Game approved what Van Ballenberghe and others decry as a “quasi-scientific” campaign to control predators. So far, 123 bears have been captured and relocated, and 142 wolves have been killed.