Moose, the popular wild animal

  • Shawn Regan

 

As I shut the door on my way to work last month, something caught my eye: Two moose, a cow and a calf, stood just 20 yards away, looking as though they hoped I hadn’t noticed them –– something hard to avoid doing, given their size. As I scrambled for my camera, they vanished into the forest in an instant.

It’s at moments like this when we Westerners might wonder what the pioneers felt, travelling through a world that existed for millennia before the West began filling up with European settlers. That world is reduced to slivers today, mostly in parks and wilderness areas, where nature is deliberately set aside from the whims of man. Yet the moose in my Montana yard suggest a different story, one that emphasizes the human role in nature, its ever-changing state and our perceptions of what it ought to look like.

Modern-day travelers to the West know the moose well. The homely ungulate has become a beloved symbol of Western life, featured on everything from restaurant signs to hotel wallpaper. But early travelers to the region reported seeing few or no moose. Lewis and Clark, for example, never personally encountered a single moose; their journals mention only one sighting in 1806, by another member of the expedition who wounded a moose near the Blackfoot River in Montana.

How could the expedition, which traveled extensively through what would today be considered prime moose habitat, encounter just one moose?

Moose, it turns out, are newcomers to the American West; in many places; even homesteaders arrived first. Osborne Russell, who wrote down detailed observations of his travels through Wyoming in the 1830s, made no reference at all to moose. Early explorers to Yellowstone had a similar experience. Moose were not documented there until the late 1800s, and only after the turn of the century did they become established in Jackson Hole, now a modern moose-mecca.

Today, there are more moose in the West than perhaps any point in history, and in general, we like it that way. When we spot one, we don’t cringe as we would with most “exotic” species. Instead, in an effort to increase tourism and hunting, states have introduced moose to regions never before inhabited by the ungainly ungulates with their oversized hooves.

Wyoming is now home to more than 7,000 moose, thanks to feeding and relocation efforts by state wildlife officials. Introduced to Colorado’s North Park in 1979, moose have now reached a population there of 1,600. As far south as Utah, where moose never roamed prior to European settlement, wildlife officials have supported their expansion.

In a way though, adding moose to the wild amounts to form of heresy. The traditional view of park ecology is that nature should be static and balanced. The influential Leopold Report, written by scientists in 1963, to guide wildlife management in national parks, concluded that parks should be maintained “in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.” Where this was not possible, “a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated.” This certainly suggests that there should be no moose in Yellowstone.

That there are moose in Yellowstone these days tells us something about nature and our role in it: Nature is a human concept. Our values shape what it looks like, from earlier policies of predator control to the conservation efforts that attract moose to my yard today. Human action is part of the natural world, not the antithesis of it.

The real illusion is that there ever was a stable, primitive America. Today, ecologists find that nature is anything but constant. As biologist Daniel Botkin has argued, the natural world is not “a Kodachrome still-life,” but rather “a moving picture show,” ever-changing and, at times, completely random. When humans and their values are included, the result is perpetual change.

Conservationists are beginning to embrace such change. Recently, the National Park Service revisited the Leopold Report and jettisoned the notion of parks as “vignettes of primitive America.” Parks are now to be managed for continuous change. Elsewhere, scientists are promoting the concept of the Anthropocene, a new geologic era in which humans and nature are inseparable. I think of the moose in my backyard as representing this new vision of conservation in the 21st century; it’s one that rejects the notion of a pristine past, recognizes the importance of human values and embraces change.

Shawn Regan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He lives in Bozeman, Montana and is a fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • WYOMING CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...