Hillary Buchanan doesn’t want to blame a moose for the serious injuries she suffered when it bolted out of the willows on a trail where she was riding her horse near Rollinsville on July 28.
Her horse startled, bucked her off and then stepped on her side, breaking six of her ribs in multiple places and leaving her with a collapsed left lung. Buchanan was hospitalized for four weeks following the run-in, and it took a surgeon six hours to repair her lung. The injuries were life-changing. Now she’s planning to move to Maine, because the formerly avid hiker, skier and mountain biker doesn’t think she’ll regain the quality of life she had before the encounter, while living at 8,000 feet.
Buchanan’s trauma was so overwhelming she never thought to report the incident. But even if she’d escaped with fewer injuries, she wouldn’t have called CPW, “because the moose didn’t cause my accident,” she said. “It was moose adjacent.”
But CPW wants people who have run-ins with moose or other wildlife to contact them, said Jason Duetsch, the agency’s District 2 wildlife manager, because “a first-hand report of a sow with cubs getting into trash in Boulder or a moose causing problems in Nederland gives the agency the information needed to decide the best course forward.”
So far this year, only four human-moose incidents have been recorded, but Buchanan’s case shows that some fall through the cracks. And in Nederland, where moose habitat is good, they’re often in the same places as people. But moose cows are fierce defenders of their young and a bull during the rutting season can be edgy and territorial, two conditions that could leave over-eager viewers suffering an injury if they aren’t aware of places the animals like to hang out and take care to avoid them.
“I know that’s not what people wanting a photo of a giant bull moose want to hear,” Duetsch said. “But there’s a reason why we tell people to run, dive under cover or climb from an aggressive moose, which is very different from what we teach people to do with bears and lions. Moose are large, powerful, wild and unpredictable ungulates that are best viewed from far away and without a dog in tow,” as moose associate dogs with their natural predators, wolves and coyotes.
Colorado’s moose boom
Buchanan lives in the same region where a mountain lion snatched, killed or attacked 23 dogs between April 9 and Dec. 4, 2022. The killing stopped after a resident shot a lion that was attacking his dog Dec. 27. It was an extreme example of conflict that can and does occur in the wildland-urban interface of the Roosevelt National Forest where neighborhoods full of people push up against the Rocky Mountains.
During the frigid weeks when the residents of Boulder and Gilpin counties were on the lookout for a lion or maybe lions, some carried guns or steel poles when they took their leashed pets outdoors. “The whole place was on high alert and no one knew where whatever was taking out dogs was going to strike next,” said Stephanie Andelman, who lives near Rollinsville.
With moose it has always been a little different, with some saying even though they’re enormous they’ve never seemed as scary. Or they aren’t worried moose will stalk humans or jump out of the bushes onto the backs of mountain bikers. Or maybe it’s just that human-moose conflicts around the region have never happened in as concentrated a time as the lion attacks, Andelman added.
But four people have been injured so badly this year, they made CPW’s reports of “incidents where a human receives a bodily injury from direct contact with a moose.” This list is incomplete, however, as it only reflects incidents reported to the agency, Joey Livingston, CPW’s statewide spokesman, said. Proof that others go unreported lies with both Buchanan and Anita Whitaker Feeley, a Nederland resident who was injured by a direct hit from a moose.
Whitaker Feeley was bombing downhill on her mountain bike in the Cold Springs area near Caribou Open Space on Colorado 119 when a cow and a calf came sprinting out of the woods and the calf T-boned her, she said. Her Strava log reported her speed at 23 miles per hour, “so there was no way I could avoid running into them,” she said. Suddenly, she was laid out on the ground expecting to die. “I saw the mama running toward me and I’m like, ‘Welp, that’s been a fun run.’”
The cow ran over her, not on top of her, “but she tagged me right here with her hoof,” Whitaker Feeley added, pointing to her cheek, which turned several shades of purple and was so swollen she couldn’t chew food for weeks. The fall from the bike shattered her right elbow, requiring surgery and the insertion of metal to hold it together; she broke a bone in her hand, also requiring surgery; and she tore a ligament in her wrist — another surgery.
“But, you know, I still go hiking on my neighborhood trails unless I know a cow and calf are out there,” she said. Even then she’ll go out, but make a concerted effort to walk a big arc around them. Residents of neighborhoods across the area do the same, because the moose seem to be everywhere.
They walk into aspen clutches near kids’ play structures to munch the leaves off the branches. They block whole families inside their houses while they stand in the driveway licking magnesium chloride, a de-icing compound, off Subarus and Toyotas. And they saunter past dogs barking their brains out from behind fences like they’re on a Sunday stroll, which, on Sundays, they are.
Duetsch said with 3,500 moose spread across the state, their numbers are “significantly lower” than other ungulate species like elk, deer or pronghorn. So their seeming omnipresence isn’t a population problem, it’s a “distribution problem,” particularly when you add in the increasing recreational pressure in riparian corridors, which moose love and where trails and homes also exist. “Then you have an increasingly attractive recipe for potential conflict,” he said.
Some in communities where moose and people have proliferated say the presence of the enormous animals, which can stand up to 6 feet tall at the shoulder, weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds, run up to 35 mph and swim up to 6 mph, is changing the way they experience their surroundings.
When asked if CPW should be doing more to try to reduce human-moose conflicts, Duetsch said that while some of the public would like no moose in the places they live or recreate, “moose may come there for potential refuge from predators or other moose, like when a cow-calf pair or recently kicked-out yearling wanders into town.” Or there’s ample habitat that most likely attracted the moose in the first place.
“In this case, regardless of how many wolves, bears, lions or hunters with valid licenses there are, there will continue to be refuge where we for one reason or another can’t actively manage or redistribute moose to the point where we can totally prevent a hiker, dog walker, mountain biker, etc. from a potential encounter with one,” he added.
Whose territory is moose territory?
Wildlife admirers love to point out that critters were here eons before people.
But with Colorado moose, that’s not the case.
CPW says 24 Shiras moose were transplanted to the North Park region near Walden from Utah and Wyoming in 1978 to create a breeding population and provide opportunities for hunters.
Additional moose from Wyoming, Utah and Colorado’s own growing population were moved around Colorado in the ensuing years, with the project creating new hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities. It was so successful that in 1995, the state legislature declared Walden the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado.” The enormous ungulates populated so well, they reached an established breeding population of about 2,300 by 2012.
Unlike most other deer species, moose are solitary animals, aside from calves that stick with their mother until they’re around 18 months old, at which point the cow chases them off. The only explanation CPW has for this behavior is “it’s just how they evolved.”
Their ranges can exceed 50 miles when they’re on the hunt for food or a mate. They favor riparian areas, with ample willow bushes and aspen trees around water, where they browse, drink and rest in the shade. And with their extremely long strides, “we see all the time where they travel to places we don’t expect them, like downtown Greeley or Grand Lake or Boulder,” Kara Van Hoose, a CPW spokesperson, said.
Van Hoose said CPW increased moose hunting tags from their original number, set in 1985, of five for bulls and zero for cows in a population of 100, to last year, roughly 250 for bulls and 350 for cows, with 457 total moose harvested.
CPW keeps moose populations under control through the issuance of cow tags, she added. But in the week prior to Duetsch speaking with The Sun, he said the agency had “been accosted by people saying we’re killing mothers.”
While that may be true, CPW makes its management decisions through decades of research, and, Duetsch said, “We hope that through education, people can take a step back and accept things like carrying capacity and what a healthy habitat looks like. CPW uses the best available science to guide our management strategies. When you combine that with an animal that can legally be hunted and feed a family for at least a year, it’s a truly incredible thing. Not to mention we live in a part of the state where people who eat meat place great value on the idea of being able to do so locally, obtaining some of the healthiest, free-range, organic, affordable protein from the landscape themselves.”
CPW “isn’t trying to change peoples’ minds about how they feel about moose,” he added. “We’re trying to use the best available science to make sure we have the most robust moose population possible while keeping habitat healthy. It is unnecessary to have the population get to the point where vehicle collisions and starvation become common on the landscape. That’s not sound wildlife management.”
But with the human population growing and the moose population staying steady, can CPW’s current management strategies prevent more accidents?
Six years of moose attacks
Since 2017, 21 people have reported being injured by moose in Colorado. This includes seven in Boulder County, five in Grand County, three in Summit County, two in Teller County, two in Larimer and one each in Routt and Garfield counties, according to CPW statistics.
Six reported attacks occurred last year – the record high. There have been four so far this year, and four each in 2020 and 2021. Two occurred in 2017, zero in 2018 and one in 2019.
Van Hoose said when a moose attacks a human, CPW will investigate the circumstances surrounding the attack to evaluate what would be the best course of action. “If the same moose attacks repeatedly, it will most likely be euthanized because that is now a learned behavior and we have to prioritize human safety,” she added. And relocation is mainly used when wildlife venture into human spaces and need a little help getting back into better, more suitable habitat for them, she said. A good example of this is a moose who wound up in Greeley.
“But some people don’t call when an incident happens because they think we’re out there killing everything every day,” Duetsch said.
This perception can lead some to calling CPW and reporting a problem anonymously, but only reports that come from the affected individual count. Everyone in a given neighborhood should be on the same page with this, he added, just as they should understand moose are dangerous and aren’t going to rationalize your presence.
In some instances usually involving dogs, moose may become aggressive and charge, like they did in three highly publicized cases all along the Front Range mountains over the past year and a half.
On June 8, 2022, a moose charged and stomped a man, woman and dog all hiking on the West Magnolia trails near Nederland. When a Boulder County sheriff’s deputy arrived, it continued to charge, until the deputy shot it. The male hiker was taken to a hospital and treated for injuries, and the moose was removed.
Nearly a year later, on June 19, a man walking his dogs in Coal Creek Canyon surprised a cow moose and calf when turning a corner on a trail. The moose charged the man, knocked him down and stomped on him several times before the man fired two shots into the ground. The startled cow left the area with its calf. Neither the moose or calf were harmed and the man was transferred to a nearby hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
And on Sept. 21, a moose charged a woman hiking with her dog South Saint Vrain Trail north of Ward, not far from Nederland. She and her dog were injured. The moose wasn’t found.
Duetsch said no one benefits when stories like this are taken out of context or exaggerated.
Instead, people should paint an accurate picture of living with or recreating around the animals. They’re unpredictable, not placid. Sometimes they tolerate human presence, but not always. And given the choice, they don’t seem to want humans in their space. But if someone talks about how great their dog behaves off-leash in moose country on Facebook, it can send the message that it’s safe to let dogs roam all over.
Duetsch encourages people who’ve lived around moose to instead “show some responsibility and compassion to people who still don’t know how to live with wildlife by sharing knowledge with the heart of a teacher.”
Another way to manage moose?
Beginning Dec. 31, if everything goes according to plan, nature will have a new way to control Colorado’s moose population.
That’s when wolves are set to be released, per Proposition 114, with 50 planned for release over the next five years.
CPW biologists will let them go west of the Continental Divide; 150 to 200 are needed for a self-sustaining population. Wolf experts say wolves need an estimated 10 pounds of meat per day, on average, to thrive. And though deer and elk often make up much of a wolf’s diet, they are opportunists and will take down moose when the opportunity arises.
With the giant ungulates roaming the landscape from North Park to Leadville to Colorado Springs to Creede, and in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, no one knows where wolves will go if and when they outgrow their initial resources and expand their pack sizes and territories.
But if they head for the moose living in Colorado’s wildland-urban corridors, there could be wildlife-viewing opportunities few here have ever seen.