Methow Valley moose sightings are a part of gradual migration in the region
By Ashley Ahearn
Stacey Williams saw her first moose up the Rendezvous this fall. Williams was riding her mare, Micky, near the end of Gunn Ranch Road when the horse stopped in its tracks. “Her ears were pricked forward and I could feel how hard her heart was beating,” Williams recalled.
In a low, wet stretch of aspen, a young bull moose emerged from the golden leaves and looked at the horse, calmly. The moment lasted and lasted.
“Micky was nervous but fascinated,” Williams said. “And so was I. What an incredible, majestic, powerful creature.”
From Lost River to Twin Lakes to the Loup and beyond, Methow Valley residents have reported moose sightings. According to a citizen science initiative, started by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), a total of 433 sightings were reported across north central and eastern Washington during the Sept. 1-Nov. 30, 2017, survey period, an increase of roughly 30 percent over the previous years reported sightings, though the survey data did not provide results specific to the Methow Valley.
“It’s hard to draw a lot of hard and fast conclusions from that data because they’re not really collected in a systematic way,” said Scott Fitkin, district biologist with the WDFW in the Methow Valley. “It’s not as rigorous as the data collection we would do with a structured [helicopter] survey.” Fitkin and his team are conducting such a survey of the deer population in the Methow this week.
The citizen science moose project was meant to provide some baseline information about where moose may be expanding in the region. And preliminary reports suggest they are moving west, from the Colville area, into Okanogan County and the Methow Valley. Some moose may also be coming down from Canada.
Headed this way
“It seems like in your neck of the woods they are expanding westward and people are seeing more of them,” said Annemarie Prince, district biologist with WDFW in Colville. “I actually found a moose antler when I was hiking over there, in the Tiffany Lake area.”
For the past five years the WDFW has been tracking 67 collared adult female moose in northeastern Washington in order to get a broader population estimate based on how many calves are being born and what their survival rates are. Based on aerial surveys, the WDFW estimates there are roughly 5,169 moose in the area north of Spokane to the Kettle Mountains of northeastern Washington, though the population density is likely considerably lower in the Methow Valley.
“You normally think of moose in Minnesota and Vermont, and places like that,” said Prince. The moose that are showing up in the Methow Valley are likely from the Rocky Mountains, genetically, and have slowly expanded their range west.
Broadly speaking, Prince said, “Moose are not doing that great — some of it is parasites, climate change might be playing a role, so moose are moving into these new areas where they haven’t been before.”
“There’s food resources that they’re finding there [the Methow Valley], or they might just go on walkabouts. Most movements you see like that are resource driven,” Prince said.
Wildfire may also be playing a role. Moose gravitate towards deciduous forests where they eat willow, aspen and alder bark and buds. After a fire, these trees are often some of the first to re-establish in burn areas. Before the large evergreens take hold, there are plenty of leafy shrubs, underbrush and young deciduous trees for moose to munch on.
“One thing you might see in the Methow is with all those fires, in 10-15 years when they’re grown up in alder and willow, moose love that, so there could be an increase. That’s what we saw here in the northeast after timber harvest. Ten to 15 years later you’ve got all this shrubby stuff where they cut and that’s great for them,” Prince said.
Moose are generally solitary animals, though calves will stay with their mothers for an entire year. Bulls are also solitary except for when they are in rut, which tends to be from the end of September through early October.
“Moose safety is a thing,” Prince said. “Moose can become aggressive, especially towards dogs. A bull in rut or a cow with her calf can get a little testy.”
In the state of Washington there is no open season for moose. However, permits are issued in northeastern Washington. No permits are issued for the Methow Valley; however, one permit is offered for auction in this area. Moose are treated as a special species, like bighorn sheep or mountain goats.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime permit if you harvest. Once you get drawn you’re never gonna get drawn again,” said Prince. She added that until biologists have a better sense of the moose population in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, more broadly, it’s unlikely that hunting permits will be issued in this area.
“Before we offer a super special permit like that we want to make sure the population can support it. That’s why some units [in the Methow] haven’t been open yet. When they are opened we want to make sure it’s going to be a quality hunt,” Prince said.
The WDFW is still collecting citizen sighting reports via this website: https://wdfw.wa.gov/viewing/moose.