Moose pop­u­la­tion has swelled at Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park

Ripon Bulletin - - On The Road -

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The Holzwarth His­toric Site in the Kawuneeche Val­ley on the west side of Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park is un­usu­ally quiet for a mid-Au­gust night. At the height of sum­mer tourist sea­son, the park at­tracts hordes of visi­tors — more than 4 mil­lion in 2017. But the only noises are the flut­ter of the wind pass­ing through the leaves of the as­pens, the crunch of the gravel un­der de­lib­er­ate foot­steps and the oc­ca­sional muted mur­mur of a park em­ployee’s ra­dio.

Si­lence was what land­scape ecol­o­gist Hanem Abouelezz needed as she peered through a stand of as­pens at a 4-yearold fe­male moose feed­ing on a bounty of wil­low trees in the marshy area just south of the his­toric site’s build­ings.

If all went well, Abouelezz would shoot the moose with a dart con­tain­ing slow-re­lease anes­the­sia. The moose would slowly fade into a light slum­ber as a team of bi­o­log­i­cal tech­ni­cians em­ployed by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice took blood sam­ples, mea­sured heart rate, checked for ticks and per­formed a rec­tal biopsy.

About an hour af­ter Abouelezz re­leased the dart, she would in­ject the moose with a re­ver­sal drug. The cow will grad­u­ally awaken, stand up and re­turn to her night of munch­ing, sleep­ing and roam­ing.

Yet, if a crunch be­came a crack or a mur­mur be­came shout, this moose might head for the hills. Abouelezz and her team would leave emp­ty­handed, with­out the per­fect can­di­date for her study, the first of its kind in­volv­ing moose, but with im­pli­ca­tions that could im­pact the health of ri­par­ian ar­eas through­out the park.

In 1980, only one moose was re­ported in the Kawuneeche Val­ley. In 2017, the park re­ported 30 to 50 on the west side and an in­creas­ing num­ber on the east side. They’ve been sighted in ev­ery drainage, lead­ing park sci­en­tists to ask what types of changes were driv­ing such pop­u­la­tion growth and what the long-term ef­fects would be.

Last sum­mer, a re­search team led by Abouelezz trans­formed their ques­tion into an ex­per­i­ment with the goal of fit­ting up to 40 moose — 20 on the west side and 20 in the north­east side — with collars ad­justed to each an­i­mal’s neck. The GPS collars al­low them to col­lect data on moose pop­u­la­tion size, pop­u­la­tion growth, car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity and habi­tat use. The moose are also mon­i­tored for chronic wast­ing dis­ease, which has af­flicted elk in the park, but not yet moose, as well as other base­line health.

Though park sci­en­tists have col­lared elk in the past, this is the first time the track­ers have been fit­ted to moose.

Thus far, the collars have not left no­tice­able rubs or marks and don’t ap­pear to be in­ter­fer­ing with the moose’s daily ac­tiv­i­ties. The hour un­der anes­the­sia, also, has had lit­tle if any im­pact on the moose.

“We do what we can to make the moose as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble,” Abouelezz said. “When we’re tak­ing the sam­ples, we make sure it’s spine is in align­ment, blind­fold it so it has no aware­ness of hu­man con­tact and, just in case, hook it up to an oxy­gen tank.”

In iso­la­tion, an uptick in the moose pop­u­la­tion isn’t a prob­lem. But moose don’t live in a vac­uum, just like ev­ery other or­gan­ism in the park, in­clud­ing the hu­mans that visit it.

More moose means more mouths to feed. That means more stress on wil­low trees, which are 93 per­cent of a moose’s 55-pound-a-day diet in Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park. Again, in iso­la­tion, this might not have caused much con­cern, the team said, since wil­lows evolved with browsers like moose, adapt­ing to their feed­ing habits to find ways to re­grow once their leaves were chomped off, said John Mack, the branch chief of nat­u­ral re­sources for the park.

Add dis­ease, specif­i­cally Cy­tospora fungi which is car­ried by birds, and the equi­lib­rium of the ecosys­tem is no­tice­ably dis­rupted. Sud­denly, cer­tain ar­eas that used to be pop­u­lated with a dense mass of tall wil­low trees are meadows stud­ded with stumpy wil­low bushes. Their branches, which are now only about 3 to 4 feet long, are naked and dy­ing, even though their core still tries to pro­duce leaves at the base.

With­out griz­zly bears and wolves — pri­mary preda­tors of moose — the wil­lows have few de­fenses.

“The in­fec­tion it­self is not out of the or­di­nary, but it kills the leaves at the per­fect level for browsers, which moose are, and we have a lot of it cur­rently,” Abouelezz said.

Wil­lows serve as soil sta­bi­liz­ers in ri­par­ian zones, which serve as the in­ter­face be­tween land and a river or stream and are crit­i­cal to wa­ter­shed health, wildlife habi­tat and over­all ecosys­tem health. With­out such veg­e­ta­tion, the ri­par­ian zone can wash away, im­pact­ing the aquatic and ter­res­trial land­scape.

“Once you see the whole ecosys­tem starts to suf­fer, the red flags go up,” Mack said, prob­ing the empty branches atop a wil­low.

Ear­lier in the night, about 5 p.m., a sec­tion of Trail Ridge Road just west of the Bowen Brown Trail­head was in what park em­ploy­ees like to call “an an­i­mal jam.”

A vis­i­tor with an eye at­tuned to wildlife had spot­ted a moose about a quar­ter mile off the road and pulled over for a closer look.

In na­tional park fash­ion, other cars fol­lowed, even if their cam­era and binoc­u­lar­wield­ing oc­cu­pants had no clue for what they were stop­ping.

At least 30 cars stacked one in front of the other on the side of the road, and an im­promptu view­ing party that par­tially blocked traf­fic had be­gun.

“Watch­ing visi­tors get ex­cited about wildlife and ask us ques­tions is a great re­minder for me that these an­i­mal jams are over­all a good thing, even if they can be a safety haz­ard,” said Nick Bar­tush, a bi­o­log­i­cal science tech­ni­cian on Abouelezz’s team who mon­i­tored the group watch­ing the moose.

In the 10 min­utes the crowd oohed and ah­hed at the moose with the A2 col­lar, at least three groups ap­proach Bar­tush ask­ing about the moose and the re­search. Such cu­rios­ity is not un­com­mon at Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park, he said.

“We take (these) in­ter­ac­tions as an op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate the pub­lic about our re­search, which helps them un­der­stand why we dart a moose and how that hour of con­tact will help the park as a whole,” Bar­tush said.

Through­out the West, wildlife are a sta­ple of na­tional parks, es­pe­cially those home to moose, bears, bi­son and bighorn sheep. Peo­ple from across the world travel to these parks some­times just to catch a glimpse of the an­i­mals.

But ecosys­tems are frag­ile, and there’s still so much ex­perts don’t un­der­stand about how a sys­tem is af­fected by changes in vari­ables.

That’s one of the rea­sons Abouelezz is in­tent on be­ing pa­tient in this process.

“The changes that caused this moose pop­u­la­tion to grow, the wil­lows to die off and the ri­par­ian zones to be im­pacted didn’t hap­pen overnight, and nei­ther will the so­lu­tion,” she said.

“We could do in­ten­sive, mech­a­nized treat­ments to quickly re­store the ri­par­ian area, but there are con­se­quences we might not be able to pre­dict if we don’t fully un­der­stand the scope of what we’re deal­ing with.”

Mack added, “Wildlife don’t work as fast as hu­mans do, so we’re very de­lib­er­ate in em­pha­siz­ing ‘pa­tience’ in our day-to-day data col­lec­tion and the long-term cre­ation and im­ple­men­ta­tion of the man­age­ment plan.”

Moose watch­ing is a pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity for tourists at Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park.

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