Northern Utah's moose population numbers may be in a decline and pinning down the reason is not a simple task. That's what the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' big game project leader, Kent Hersey, told The Park Record.
It has been widely reported that many moose populations across North America have seen their numbers decimated and the reasons are not clear. Disease, human interactions and hunting may all be factors, but as The New York Times reported in October, "a common thread in most hypotheses is climate change."
Utah's North Slope of the Uinta Mountains is where moose first settled down in Utah. "They started pioneering into that area in the early 1900s," Hersey said. "Our first count there was in 1957."
Hersey said Utah's moose population peaked in 2005-06, when there were close to 4,000 moose in Utah. Soon after that, however, the northern moose population shrank.
"Some of our bigger populations up north, like the ones around Cache Valley, North Slope, Ogden, some of the bigger populations where we've had moose for longer periods of time, showed substantial decline," Hersey said. He noted that the decline coincides "with some of the harsh winters we had around 2007 or so."
Those declines around 2007 did not last long. "Since that time, what we've seen is that the northern populations have stabilized or started even showing increasing trends," Hersey said.
The stabilization and increasing trends, however, do not apply to Park City, where the number of moose appears to be dwindling.
Wasatch population decline
"We may be starting to see a decline in our Wasatch population, which is the Park City area and over to Strawberry Reservoir and over towards Duchesne," Hersey noted. "We don't know for sure yet, but our last count in there was down quite a bit the data from that showed that survival wasn't horrible but the production -- the number of calves being born -- was really low. Which was surprising.
"The survival's not great, but when you don't have great survival and when you're not producing anything, that's not good for your population."
The possible decline isn't a reason to be too concerned just yet. Dave Swenson was an officer at the Division of Wildlife Resources for 31 years, "the last 17 of which were in this area" when he was a game warden, he said. Swenson has noticed any obvious decline. If anything, he has seen the opposite.
"We seemed to have more this summer in the Jeremy Ranch area. I've lived there 25 years, but it seemed like this summer there were more sightings," he said
Swenson often had to deal with moose during his years at the Division of Wildlife Resources.
"Occasionally there would be a roadkill moose on U.S. 40 or I-80 that I had to deal with," he said. "Half a dozen times a moose calf would fall in window wells and I dealt with that.
"And then just last August one fell in the window well of my house," Swenson added. "We were out of town at the time.
"But one of the wildlife officers and other law enforcement like the sheriff's office hoisted that calf out of my window well," he said.
"The irony didn't escape me."
Moose interactions in the area certainly aren't disappearing, at least not for the Park City Police Department. In recent weeks, the Department has responded to calls about "a very large bull moose heading towards Park Ave," a "yearling moose walking down middle of road" in Park Meadows, and a "bull moose in parking lot" off Lowell Ave.
"Moose are pretty random," Swenson said.
Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources regularly performs counts of moose populations and the most recent Wasatch numbers are down.
"In 2011 we counted 282 moose in the Wasatch -- that's the western part, mainly just Park City and Heber City and the Strawberry, and we counted only 180 this past time," Hersey said. "It could just be due to different conditions, we're not exactly sure.
"But it could be real as well."
While ups and downs in population numbers aren't unexpected, especially since moose are still relatively new to Utah, there's still reason for concern.
"The Wasatch was a lot more recent of a population, it started sometime in the mid-1980s. So we've seen population [drops] and increases on the North Slope a couple times before, but we've never seen one on the Wasatch, and that's why this one is kind of interesting. But it's not that unexpected given that we've seen it in other herds. And it's a common thing in wildlife, when they have completely new habitats that's unexploited, they'll go in and they'll take off and do really well and they kind of hit a point and kind of decrease until they balance themselves with that a little bit," said Hersey.
Counts aren't the only important numbers, Hersey cautioned, because they're subject to many variable factors. "Weather patterns determine how many you see, whether it's snow conditions, things of that nature, or if in fact you are just seeing a decline. So, unfortunately it's not one hundred percent clear," Hersey said, adding that "it's certainly cause for concern."
Swenson, on the other hand, hasn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. "There is some ebb and flow but the population in this area appears to be healthy," he said.
That doesn't account, of course, for all the moose sightings that don't cause someone to call the police.
Division of Wildlife Resources, doesn't only rely on counts when it comes to tracking moose populations it has also been outfitting moose all over the state with electronic radio collars in order to monitor their behavior, movement and numbers. Hersey said the Division has approximately 60 moose currently collared on the North Slope.
"It's a great thing we have those collars out in conjunction with those low counts," Hersey said, because "the counts [alone] won't tell us everything."
What is affecting the moose?
As for the reasons behind the possible local population declines, the Division of Wildlife Resources cites many possible factors in its "Utah Moose Statewide Management Plan," including disease, competition, poaching, predators, human interaction and hunting. The biggest potential factor is habitat degradation and loss.
"The single biggest influence on moose populations in Utah is the quantity and quality of available habitat," the Plan states. "Habitat can be degraded, fragmented, or lost to a variety of causes including human development and plant succession. Reductions in habitat can result in corresponding population declines. Improvements in habitat can mitigate losses and result in increased moose populations. As Utah's human population continues to grow, moose habitat will continue to be lost. Conversion of moose habitat into highways, summer homes, ski resorts, or other developments, results in a permanent loss of habitat."
As further development in Park City is inevitable, its moose population could be in further jeopardy in the future. But the Division of Wildlife Resources isn't sounding the warning bell yet, and is continuing to collect information on a species that isn't always the easiest to study, said Kent Hersey.
"Moose vary so much by population to population," he said.