Moose make a surprising move into Utah's Range Creek
Visitors to Range Creek Canyon in the Book Cliffs typically head to the remote area to experience its treasure trove of archaeological sites but they may also be spotting some surprising wildlife.
Moose have shown up in the hot, arid and usually dusty canyon more commonly populated with desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, pronghorn and black bear. Biologists and researchers say Utah's moose have found ways to survive in atypical environments.
"It is interesting they are in that area," said Dan MacNulty, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Utah State University and part of a team conducting moose research in northern Utah.
"It is possible that the area around Range Creek is a microhabitat that could be good for moose," he said. "Kind of a little refuge."
Bison, another less-expected guest, have been seen in the canyon for years, but the moose are relatively new.
State wildlife officials spotted roughly a dozen moose during aerial elk surveys on the high-elevation West Tavaputs Plateau some parts of which are at an elevation higher than 10,000 feet. They decided to augment the new population with animals that needed to be moved from urban environments in northern Utah. The first transplanted moose arrived in the summer of 2012.
"We delivered 13 the first year and two more last summer," said Brad Crompton, a biologist in the southeastern region office of the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in Price. "The idea was to put them near the headwaters [of Range Creek] and the upper canyons."
It didn't take long for the moose to explore their new surroundings. Sightings soon followed at various locations, including the private Tavaputs Ranch on the plateau and the Range Creek Field Station in the lower canyon.
Corinne Springer, ranch manager at the field station, saw a cow and bull moose on the same day last week and posted a picture of the female (sporting ear tags and a radio collar) on the Range Creek Facebook page. The Jensen family from the Tavaputs Ranch reports seeing moose, including cows with twin calves, in the high country.
The Nine Mile moose population, so named because the area elk herd is also named for the region to the north of the Tavaputs, is now about 30 animals. Crompton says the area could support roughly 75.
Four of the moose cows have radio collars so they can be tracked and observed.
There have been no discussions about allowing hunting of the moose, but it will likely happen if the population reaches its capacity.
The roughly 3,000 moose in Utah, MacNulty said, are the southernmost naturally occurring moose in North America. The largest member of the deer family was not found in Utah when pioneers arrived and, biologists say, migrated on its own from Idaho and Wyoming.
The first recorded sighting didn't happen until the early 1900s at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon. The first established moose herd was not recognized until 1947, and formal management of the species in the state did not start until 1957.
"The Utah moose are a population on the edge of the species' range," MacNulty said. "They serve as a valuable tool for [studying] any kind of environment change."
For a northern Utah study, 120 moose were collared in January 2013. It's too early to draw conclusions, but results so far show the moose in some areas are struggling while others seem to be thriving.
"We are seeing high levels of tick infestation in some areas and those appear to have a low reproduction rate. We had one moose in the area west of Heber [City] that looked like a ghost, it had so little hair," MacNulty said. "Strangely, just to the east of that area, the moose have beautiful coats and most of the cows had calves."
Despite the ticks, McNulty said, survival rates of the collared animals are high and are about the same across northern Utah. That's important when states across the country are reporting significant reductions in moose populations due to a variety of possible factors, some driven by climate change.
Wildlife officials were so concerned about the decline in Minnesota moose although it appears less drastic than it once seemed that hunting was put on hold as they attempt to figure out why it's happening.
"Moose in Utah, despite environmental challenges," MacNulty said, "seem to be pretty resilient."