Herd on the Street
In Anchorage, Alaska, you never know when a moose will show up on your doorstep
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.
Primarily associated with northern spruce, fir and pine forests, moose are equally at home on tundra and in mountains— basically, wherever they can find patches of willow, birch, aspen and other nourishing forage. (“Moose” may derive from an Algonquian Indian word, moosu, meaning, roughly, “bark stripper.”) Thanks to their long legs, they can negotiate deep snow and run as fast as a horse across terrain so rough people can barely clamber over it. In warm weather, they like to cool off in ponds and lakes, submerging now and then to feed on aquatic vegetation. Moose are powerful swimmers, an attribute that does not always work in their favor. In 1992, two Alaskan fishermen saw a pod of killer whales attack a pair of moose swimming from an offshore island to the mainland. Amid “a lot of splashing,” one moose was torn apart; the other took refuge in a bed of kelp thewhales couldn’t penetrate, only to drown there after they left.
Predation, hunting and weather all affect moose numbers, but the critical factor is suitable habitat. In 1915, An- chorage was founded as a railroad town in a bowl-like configuration of brushy lowland and wooded slopes where moose traditionally sought shelter in the winter. During World War II, Anchorage became an important military outpost. The discovery of oil on the nearby Kenai Peninsula in 1957 and the construction of an 800-mile-long oil pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez in the 1970s triggered a statewide boom that transformed the city. Today it bristles with high-rise buildings and bustles with shopping centers. As for that important moose wintering habitat, most of it has disappeared and the rest has been seriously compromised. Now new houses are relentlessly climbing the hillsides behind Anchorage toward moose summer range as well. “The animals have nowhere else to go except where people live,” the National Park Service’s Spencer told me.
These days up to about 300 moose stay within city limits year-round. After the first snowfalls, they’re joined by hundreds more streaming down from the Chugach Mountains to the east. During a hard winter, many starve. After overbrowsing vegetation in Anchorage’s parks (much of it malnourishing to begin with), moose hang around residential neighborhoods and head downtown, where they sometimes “attack” Piper Cubs parked at a bush-plane airport, shredding tail assemblies and damaging wings.
Most residents say they enjoy watching moose and like having them around. “They’re icons,” Rick Sinnott told me. “They remind us we live on the edge of a great wilderness. People appreciate that.” But people don’t necessarily appreciate ruined bushes and flower beds, trashed hammocks, injured pets, looted garbage cans and scary encounters. “We’re constantly dealing with nuisance moose,” grumbled one exasperated homeowner I talked to in a new east-side development. He and like-minded others—it’s hard to tell how many—want the interlopers to vamoose. “They’ve lost their fear of man,” Vogel said, “and once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before somebody gets killed.”
Two Anchorage residents already have been killed. A66- year-old woman was trampled to death in her backyard near JewelLake on the city’s west side in 1993. An older man died from massive injuries after he was stomped on the University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus in 1995. Last year, 11-year-old Hannah Strobbe narrowly escaped becoming the city’s third aggressive-moose fatality when an alarmed cow with a calf trounced her while she was playing near her home. “If she had been hit solid, she would have been killed,” said her father, Steve, a construction worker, when he and Hannah showed me the place where the attack happened. “As it was, the moose nearly tore off one ear, fractured her skull and shattered her collarbone.”
Run-ins aren’t unusual. Nearly a third of residents responding to a survey conducted in Anchorage several years ago for the ADFG said they had been charged by a moose in their neighborhood or on a trail. Moose are a hazard on roads too. They feed along median strips and shoulders; they lick salt off the pavement. The more city-wise among them look both ways before crossing a street, but others aren’t smart enough, or don’t live long enough, to learn. In the 2002-2003 winter season, 143 moose were killed in collisions in the Anchorage area; a 13-year-old boy died after one such accident, and property damage and other costs exceeded $2.5 million. Last winter the moose toll rose to 200.
Anywhere else, this kind of notoriety might get the moose declared Public Enemy Number One, but not in outdoors- crazy, wildlife-loving Anchorage, where it seems hardly a day goes by without one or more creature-features prominently displayed on the front page of the morning paper. “I’d like to think it’s because people realize how much trouble moose are in here,” Sinnott said. “Look, we go out and plant flowers and bushes they like to eat,” said Van Ballenberghe, who is semi-retired and lives in town. “We groom ski trails and plow roads, making it easy for them to travel. Who can blame them if they decide to stick around?”
Josephine Didiano lives in Palmer, a 45-minute drive from Anchorage. She didn’t blame the moose that jumped into her house through a window one morning last year while she was upstairs getting ready to go to work. By the time three squad cars arrived, the frantic yearling had caused $7,000 worth of damage. “I love moose,” Didiano said, walking me through the mess. “I felt terrible when this one had to be shot.” Kathleen Loughlin, a 42-year-old ski instructor, felt the same way after she was injured by a moose last year and saw one of the investigating policemen carrying a rifle. Loughlin had barged into a female with two calves while bicycling alone on a hilly Anchorage trail. She ended up on the ground, and the mother “tapped” her arm, breaking it. “I understood why she did that,” Loughlin told me. “I didn’t want them to shoot her.” As it turned out, they didn’t.
Part of Sinnott’s job is educating the public about moose and other wildlife, so accidents are less likely to happen. “It’s pretty simple—don’t get close, don’t harass, don’t confront, keep pets and garbage under control, drive cautiously.” He tells people how to read moose body language: “When the ears go back, the neck hair goes up and the lip-licking starts, it’s time to back off and look for an escape route.” Basically, Sinnott’s aim is to reassure, not scare. “People will feel more comfortable about moose if they know how to act around them,” he says.
Another part of his job is rescuing animals in distress. Each year, he and his co-worker, Jessy Coltrane, answer several thousand calls for help—everything from nuisance grizzlies and stranded calves to bulls entangled in swing sets or hammocks—from homeowners, the police and local businesses. The busiest times of year are autumn, when rutting bulls act aggressive and moose start migrating into town, and the spring calving season, when mothers get separated from their young and bears start picking off as many newborns as they can find. “When I get on the scene and hear bones crunching nearby,” Sinnott said, “I usually tell the caller I’ll be back the next day, and leave.”
One noon-hour after Sinnott and I met for a sandwich at a busy midtown deli, his cellphone went off six times. Two were bear calls; the others involved moose. Sinnott listened patiently as one worried housewife told him about a mother and calf hanging around her neighborhood. He scrawled her phone number on his palm with a ballpoint pen and promised to follow up. That morning, he’d put down a moose that had been hit by a car. He has to kill around 20 of the animals each year because they’re injured or persistently belligerent. “When somebody provokes a moose to charge,” he explained, “it’s usually the moose that pays the price. Most charges you hear about are false charges. Basically, moose are not trying to kill us. They just end up in jams they don’t know how to get out of.”
Sinnott never knows what kind of a jam he’s going to get into, either. He may have to manhandle a 100-pound calf, or pin it down with a dip net, while the mother works herself into a frenzy nearby. He may have to sedate a panicky bull before he can disentangle it from a volleyball net. Last fall, he received a report about a calf that had “a stick jammed in its eye.” When he got to the house, he found a young moose lying near its mother on the lawn. Examining the 400-pound calf through a pair of binoculars, he saw a set of wind chimes dangling from one ear. The calf rotated its ears and the chimes tinkled, but Sinnott couldn’t make out how they were attached. After he had approached to within several feet of the calf, the ever-watchful cow was distracted by something in the woods and glanced away. Sinnott lunged and grabbed the chimes. By the time the mother leaped to her feet, he had made good his escape, leaving the calf, as he put it, “unfazed and unaccessorized.”
Everybody who works with moose tells war stories. Page Spencer has one she calls “The Day Dad Set the Moose on Fire.” Back in the 1950s, when Dave Spencer was running the Kenai National Moose Range (now the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), he got a call about a moose that was charging children at a nearby elementary school playground. After sizing up the situation, he decided to scare off the intruder by throwing a firecracker at it, but his aim was too good. Sparks from the firecracker landed on top of the moose, singeing its hair. Instead of running away, the smoldering giant chased Spencer all over the playground and across the street, where a woman who had been watching flung open her door and let him in.
Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the ADFG in Soldotna, a rapidly growing community (pop. 4,000) adjacent to the Kenai refuge, went to a house not long ago to see about a yearling moose that had a plastic bag stuck on its nose. While he stood outside, gingerly trying to hook the bag with a fishing rod and a coat hanger, the flustered housewife ran around her living room exclaiming, “I can’t believe this is happening! I can’t believe this is happening!” After nothing else worked, Lewis finally leapt onto the moose’s back, yanked off the bag and dashed into the garage with his patient in hot pursuit.
At the University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus, moose are introduced to human food by students who should know better. Not long ago, one dormitory resident reportedly handed over an entire roast to a moose he had induced to stick its head in his window. “We already have enough moose hanging around here,” said campus police chief Dale Pittman. “We don’t want to attract even more by feeding them.” Pittman’s dispatcher told me he had received 54 “moose calls” in the four months prior to my visit. “On a typical weekday, we have 12,000 students here,” Pittman said, “and there are a number of buildings where moose can get hemmed in. We don’t want that to happen again.”
Pittman was referring to the second of the two Anchorage fatalities attributed to moose, the 1995 stomping of 71- year-old Myong Chin Ra, an incident that shocked the entire city after a videotape of it was broadcast on a TV news program. That day, a moose and her calf had been holed up for some time in a corner of the university’s sports complex, next to the main entrance and an adjacent day-care center. By some accounts, students and others had been pelting the animals with snowballs in a futile attempt to make them go away, which may have set the already nervous mother even more on edge. A man with a video camera happened by just as Ra, carrying a bag and wearing a knit hat and a gray coat, hurried toward the entrance, and the cornered moose. Pittman played the famous tape to show me what happened next. It was a chilling demonstration of how lightning-fast and lethal a moose can be. In the wink of an eye, the cow bowled Ra over and within a few seconds, using all four feet, kicked his head and upper body 25 to 30 times. Ra died in a hospital a short while later.
But what impresses Terry Bowyer about moose is their tolerance, not their temper. Awildlife-ecology professor and researcher at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus when we talked last fall (he has since moved to Idaho State University in Pocatello), Bowyer told me he never ceases to be amazed at how much harassment a moose will endure. “It happens over and over that skiers who encounter a moose lying on a cross-country trail will try to make him move rather than just ski around.” What they don’t understand, he said, is that in winter moose live off fat they stored up in the summer. “Walking through deep snow is a huge drain on their energy. Movement is death for them. That’s why they don’t want to get off a groomed ski trail.”
Basically, Bowyer said, moose are just big teddy bears. “They’re the least aggressive member of the deer family.” But once a moose does get mad, it stays mad. Bowyer himself moved too close to a cow he had been observing one day and ended up playing ring-around-a-tree with her for 20 minutes. At one point, his binoculars strap got hung up on a branch and he nearly strangled. “When that moose finally left, I just laid down on the ground and panted. But it wasn’t her fault. It was mine.”
Notwithstanding the efforts of Bowyer, Rick Sinnott and others to educate the public about moose behavior, the pot continues to boil over. So far this year at least two people have died in moose-vehicle collisions in the greater Anchorage area and farther north. A7-year-old Anchorage boy suffered a broken leg last spring when a moose he and some neighborhood friends had been teasing went after him. But by then the city’s “moose problem” had taken a new turn.
After his horrific encounter last year, Michael Vogel made up his mind he was going to be ready if he ran into a moose again, which, in March, he did. He was cross-country skiing with his dog when he happened across a female bedded down on the same trail. This time he reached into his fanny pack, hauled out a .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and, after the moose stood up and began coming toward him, shot at it twice. Rick Sinnott tracked the wounded animal down later that night and killed her with his shotgun. Vogel pleaded self-defense. Sinnott wasn’t buying it. “He could have turned back,” Sinnott said, “or he could have gone around her.” No charges were filed against Vogel.
It remains to be seen whether others will take the law into their own hands, but no one doubts encounters will continue to occur. “Having moose here carries risks and benefits,” says Van Ballenberghe. “We can’t reduce the risks to zero. What’s important is not that there are problems, but that there aren’t more.” Testifying last spring at a hearing in Juneau, the state capital, Linda Donegan emphasized that she and her children do not feel threatened by the moose they see on the streets of their Anchorage neighborhood. “I’m happy to take that risk for the privilege of living with these animals,” she said.
But other residents want something done now. Vogel and Steve Strobbe speak for those who favor a resumption of hunting in the Anchorage area. The last hunt, in 1983, turned into a public-relations fiasco, due partly to sensational media coverage, leaving many in the city gun-shy about another one. “We’ve discussed hunts ad infinitum,” says Sinnott. “The city doesn’t want hunters in parks, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to hunt moose in neighborhoods. In addition to the obvious safety issue, you can’t hunt on private property without permission, and a moose seldom drops in its tracks.”
Gary Olson, who heads up a two-year-old organization called the Alaska Moose Federation, advocates a “transplant” program that would relocate hundreds of moose out of Anchorage and into the wild, a notion some dismiss as “wacko.” Olson is well-connected politically, and earlier this year he and supporters packed enough clout to help persuade state legislators to pass a “nuisance moose” bill that authorizes transplants by private groups. Most moose experts regard the likelihood of such an effort succeeding as iffy at best. According to Jeff Hughes, formerly an ADFG regional supervisor in Anchorage, “the track record for moving animals like that is really poor.”
In a region that prides itself as the last redoubt of rugged individualism, limits on development are widely regarded as unpatriotic if not downright perverse, but some mooselovers are arguing for nothing less. They reason that habitat preservation, special zoning measures and moose-friendly landscaping can enable man and beast to live together more harmoniously. Anchorage mayor Mark Begich told me the city is moving in that direction. “We’ve incorporated moose migration paths into our land-use planning and have set aside large tracts of open space. We’re holding hearings now on proposals to manage growth, and we’re emphasizing mixed land use, which includes large-parcel residential development as well as dense development in town centers. The more progressive people in the real estate business see this as a plus, but there’s still a segment opposed to zoning and limits, so it’s controversial.”
Moose grow on you. During my last full day in Anchorage, I drove up to the foothills of the Chugach Mountains and took a long walk. Everywhere I looked across the tawny landscape, I could see moose grazing, singly and in small groups. Solitary bulls with magnificent racks resembled toys far off in the distance. It was hard to believe those same animals would soon be descending out of that glorious wild country into a noisy city wrapped in the darkness of a long sub-Arctic winter. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to them when they got there.