The largest wild animal to be found in the state of Colorado is making its considerable presence felt with increasing frequency in the western reaches of Boulder County.
Wildlife officials, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and those who just happen to be in the right place at the right time are seeing moose often enough within the county that it is becoming almost commonplace.
As Erin O'Leary, a ranger for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, put it, "Lots and lots of moose sightings. That's all I know."
"I would say we hear of sightings at least weekly, and there are areas where moose hang out regularly," said Bev Baker, a U.S Forest Service wildlife biologist based in Boulder. "It's just not unusual to see one anymore, especially in certain areas. And I do see a fair amount of scat, when I am out in the field."
Sylvia Clark, a district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service's Boulder Ranger District office, said, "It seems like a lot of people are seeing moose in Boulder County, in places that they haven't seen them before."
Shannon Schwab, a wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife who is involved with an ongoing radio-collar tracking study of moose in South Park, said, "It's increasing on the Front Range area. They're expanding. They are at or near carrying capacity in some of their core areas, so they are expanding into new terrain."
Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager Larry Rogstad sees it as a success story for one of North America's iconic species.
"The moose are doing a great job on their own of filling in available habitats," he said.
"And the moose in Boulder County are doing what you would expect moose to do. They travel until they find a good spot, and stop and take up residence there and several other moose come in and fill in gaps. Pretty soon, you've got moose distributed across the landscape."
Numbers in Boulder County hard to pinpoint
Parks and Wildlife officials said that historically, while moose would occasionally be spotted within the state, there was no established moose population in Colorado, with the exception of the Brown's Park area in the northwest.
That changed gradually after 1979, when a dozen were reintroduced at North Park. They have since expanded their range throughout Middle Park and South Park. In the 34 years since that time, their numbers statewide have grown to an estimated 2,300, as compared to 2,000 just a year ago.
It is an open question how many of those have made their way over the Continental Divide from Middle Park into accommodating habitats such as riparian areas surrounding Brainard Lake, Caribou Flats and Caribou Creek, as well as the upper Middle St. Vrain Creek west of Camp Dick and spots between Nederland and Eldora. It is believed the county has had an established moose population since about 2000.
"When we do some of our elk and deer surveys, flying quadrants, we're seeing more moose, and we're seeing fairly good calf-cow ratios," said Ben Kraft, a wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "We're seeing a lot of cows with twins. That's a sign they are doing well, in relation to carrying capacity. And the population is increasing."
Putting a hard number to the Boulder County moose population is difficult, because moose tend to be solitary, not traveling in conspicuous herds, as elk do. Jennifer Churchill, a spokeswoman for Parks and Wildlife, said an "off the cuff" estimate for Boulder County would be 40 to 80, although she amended that to say those numbers could include overlap with neighboring counties to the west.
Moose are the largest members of the deer family. The subspecies that inhabits Colorado is known as the Shiras, which is the smallest, with bulls topping out at about 1,200 pounds, and standing up to about 5 feet 9 inches at the shoulder.
In addition to being excellent swimmers, they can run up to 50 mph -- and can be hostile under some circumstances, making man-moose confrontations potentially more than a benign encounter.
"People need to be careful because they can be big and fast," Baker said. "People should remember to keep dogs on leashes, not be too close for pictures. The bulls can be aggressive, and especially cows with calves."
Late spring is calving season, a time at which cows can be aggressive in defending their young. On June 4, a 60-year-old woman walking her dog in Grand Lake was charged and knocked to the ground after coming as close as 10 feet to a cow with its calf. She required hospitalization for her injuries.
The former mayor of Grand Lake was charged by a bull moose in 2006 and subsequently died from his injuries. A toddler was trampled on the beach at Shadow Mountain Reservoir near Grand Lake in 2010, requiring treatment at a hospital.
Moose in recent years have ventured well outside their preferred Front Range environs. It was just over a year ago that a young moose wandered into the skate park at Nederland. It was tranquilized for removal but died shortly thereafter from the stress of its ordeal.
It was only a few days before that 2012 Nederland incident that a young bull moose strolled into a parking lot between a Hooters and the Thunder Mountain Harley-Davidson dealership at Interstate 25 and Crossroads Boulevard in Loveland. That animal was tranquilized and relocated to the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
In 2009, a 2-year-old female moose turned up in an area of West 152nd Avenue and Huron Street, not far from Interstate 25. She was tranquilized and relocated to western Boulder County.
Also memorable was the 800-pound moose that in 2007 surprised employees at the Sill-TerHar car dealership near U.S. 36 and U.S. 287 in Broomfield with a visit to the lot, trotting right past the gleaming Aston Martins and Volvos. It was also tranquilized for relocation to a more appropriate setting.
Kraft said he knows of no such lowland encounters in 2013 -- so far.
When they do occur, Kraft said, "A lot of times it's a younger-age animal going out on its own, a young bull kicked off from the cow, and following the riparian corridors in search of food."
State moose population subject of closer study
An effort to learn more about Colorado's moose population was launched earlier this year by Parks and Wildlife. The plan was to put radio collars on five cow moose in South Park east of the Continental Divide between Fairplay and the Guanella Pass Road to track their movements, their habitat preference and learn more about population size.
So far, Schwab said last week, only one had been tagged.
"We basically ran out of time," Schwab said, citing weather and other issues. "We basically had to stop because of calving. We have a plan to start up again in August."
Schwab said the goal is to equip 15 cows and five bulls with collars, "to gain a better understanding of the movements of moose in this area, the home range, and while we have them collared, we can determine the twinning rates of cows, which can be determinative of habitat quality, and give us a baseline metric of total population in the area."
Cows bearing twins are a sign that a population is not yet nearing, or at, the so-called carrying capacity for habitat where moose are living.
"Once it's at carrying capacity, you see fewer twins; the habitat is not able to support it," Kraft said.
In Boulder County, the moose boom is not viewed as a situation requiring heightened management. The state has authorized only four moose licenses -- for two antlered and two antlerless -- for the Front Range north of Interstate 70 to Fort Collins during September's brief moose 2013 hunting season.
"We're not seeing any increased resource damage at this point. There's no evidence that they are over-grazing or any of that, so we don't have any concerns at this point," said Susan Spaulding, senior wildlife biologist for Boulder County Parks and Open Space.
She pointed out that a majority of the county's trails don't traverse natural moose habitat. One exception, she said, would be Caribou Ranch, which reopens after a three-month seasonal closure Monday.
"There should be very little chance of conflict, probably," Spaulding said. "But it's definitely something to be aware of."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or email@example.com.
Tips for watching moose
Never approach too closely: Watch and photograph from safe distances with telephoto lenses, binoculars or spotting scopes.
Move slowly: Don't move directly at them. Back off if they exhibit signs of aggression, which include hair standing up on their neck, licking their snouts, cocking their heads, rolling their eyes and ears back.
Small groups: Moose do not herd into large groups, preferring to travel in small family groups or remain secluded.
Vantage points: High spots looking down into drainages afford excellent perspectives for spotting moose.
Listen for: Moose sounds are limited to grunting, with bulls being the most vocal in mating season.
Telltale signs: Look for moose signs -- large tracks, droppings, browsed willows -- along the edges of willow bottoms and aspen or pine forests.
Semi-aquatic: Moose are excellent swimmers and very much at home in the water.
Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife ___