Insights From The Moose Whisperer

Photograph of moose calf at a watering hole
Moose calf at a watering hole

Something I learned many years ago was how to find moose.

For the average person a moose sighting is more or less coincidental to their being in the right place at the right time. Moose do move around a lot and are not afraid to be in the vicinity of human populations, though their tolerance to staying in populated areas is limited by the quality of the food they find there and their perceived threat from that population. That means, you may find moose hanging out somewhere for a while but eventually they will move on to an area they are more comfortable with.

I don’t rely on reported moose sightings for finding moose. I may hear about moose hanging out here or there, but I don’t make it a point to chase sightings. It simply doesn’t work on a consistent basis.

The best way to find moose consistently is to understand their movement patterns and their preferences for food, terrain and climate.

One unwavering observation I have made is that moose don’t like warm temperatures. By warm, I mean temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The majority of my photographs are taken in cooler weather, usually below 65 degrees and where it’s colder there will generally be more moose to be found. In Colorado that means, for the most part, higher elevations.

Not that moose are all that willing to move into rugged rocky mountain sides, no, they like higher altitude areas that meet their requirements for food, water and such. High mountain valleys, meadows, streams, lakes and marshy areas with dense forest in the vicinity is their preferred habitat.

Most of my moose hunting is in the mountains of North-central Colorado above 8,000 feet altitude. A colloquial term is “the high country.”

I look for certain characteristics in the land such as riparian areas with lush vegetation along a river or stream, high altitude lakes near dense forests and with lots of marsh. Moose love to be wet. Thickets of willows along streams in valleys, areas of low human population density. This is where moose like to be. Moose like weather that isn’t really good weather for photography. Rain, cloudy and cool. For the average tourist, these aren’t the conditions to plan a trip around, but I’ve found the wettest, coolest days are usually the best days.

Finding moose isn’t difficult if you look for them in the right places at the right time with the right conditions. For this reason, I seldom give consideration to the predicted weather conditions, hoping it’s going to be a nice day.

The best approach I’ve come up with is to identify the types of areas the moose prefer and then examine the area on foot to the extent possible. I look for signs of moose activity. Hoof prints near the shores of lakes and ponds, moose poop. Yeah, moose poop is a good indicator, the more fresh poop you can find, the more moose you’ll find in the area. Moose poop is fairly unique among ungulates. Deer and elk have smaller, rounder feces. Cattle, well, if you’ve ever been near cattle, you’ll know about “cow pies.” Moose poop is usually darker and larger than other deer species. It doesn’t always look the same either. Learning to identify the different types of animal scat is of benefit. I can tell moose poop from bear poop, or elk poop quite easily, but if you don’t have that knowledge, you’ll be guessing.

Another thing I look for is bedding areas. A tell-tale sign of moose in the area is finding a large area of flattened grass near a stream or woods. When I say large area, I’m talking about a spot that can be up to 6 feet in diameter. Usually, there are more than one bedding spots in the same area. Moose are social animals and they will often sleep together in small numbers, in close proximity and finding several bed-down spots in the same area is a very good sign. This brings up the obvious point that finding large, fresh bedding spots with fresh moose poop nearby would be an optimal observation.

Once you’ve identified the moose spots, you can plan your photography. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to hunt down the moose, as they are quite aware of humans when present. Sneaking up on a moose is not an easy task and could be a dangerous proposition. Surprising and/or annoying a moose is not a smart thing to do. Keep a safe distance, 50 meters or so. Moose are tolerant of the presence of humans, but they are short tempered animals and can get quite angry with humans when provoked. Moose are not predators though. They won’t hunt you down and try to hurt you. They just want you to go away and if you become obnoxious to their sensibility, they will have no qualms about threatening you and even attacking you. I consider any moose moving towards me making eye contact to be a moose attack in progress. Their eyesight is poor so often they’ll sense your presence and move towards you to identify you. Once they get close enough to confirm their suspicions, they’ll decide if you are a threat or not and act accordingly. Never approach a moose. Be particularly wary of cows with a calf. Cows are more dangerous as they will defend their calf without warning.

I’ve found it better to plan a return to the spot that gets me near moose territory before sunrise. Moose are most active in the early part of the day. Right before sunrise and for the next couple of hours after sunrise. On foul weather days, moose will be more active as the day progresses, but on sunny or warmer days, the moose will generally retreat to the shade of a forest by 9 or 10 AM. Be there before the moose is the best plan. Let them come to you. Choose a spot, get there early and quietly and don’t make noise once in position. Plan your shots and let the moose move in to your scene.

Colorado’s moose population is expanding and from what I’ve observed the overall population is healthy. From time-to-time, I come across an injured animal or one that appears to be a little too thin for the season. A good indicator though is the number of calves that are born each year. Another measuring stick seems to be the number of twin calves observed. The theory goes, the better the feeding conditions, the better the overall health and that leads to a higher rate of twins being born each Spring.

Getting accurate counts are difficult. Colorado Parks & Wildlife don’t consider moose to be a top priority for research and management and as a result the number of scientists/biologists studying the animal is not very high. Other big game animals get the money and attention, as wildlife management is primarily focused on hunting and not on the ecology of the species.  CPW does a fairly good job of managing the large populations of game animals though.

I’ll share more of my moose photography insights in future articles, so check in with me from time to time.

If you’re hungry for moose, let me know. I do photo tours in moose country every summer and I’ve never not found moose. They don’t call me “The Moose Whisperer” for nothing.