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Archive for February, 2014

A Moose Story

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A couple of weeks ago, as I drove a friend into Yellowstone, I saw a cow moose jogging alongside our car. She trotted slowly in an arc in the snow, traveling in the opposite direction from us. I glimpsed the heads of cow elk behind her, looking alert, even alarmed, as the moose careened by. The elk remained immobile, focusing on the moose, and possibly on what or who was chasing her.

Years ago a grad student, Stewart, studied elk in Yellowstone. He showed that elk are nervous eaters, popping their heads up and down as they browse, scanning for predators. If they spot wolves, elk bunch together, all looking in the same direction. Then they run. Yet, as soon as wolves take down one of their number, the surviving elk make the most of the opportunity and eat without looking up. They’ve learned that chances are good they have nothing to worry about, for a little while anyway. (Elk also may turn and face down or even strike out at wolves. Elk that face wolves often survive, in part because wolves are coursing hunters. Wolves seem to prefer prey to run away from them, possibly to offset the size advantage that prey have. A sign of this advantage is that wolves kill only 15 % of the elk they attempt to kill.)

Of course, I have seen cow elk distraught and pacing after wolves have killed their calves. The cow will watch, circle, and hang around for a while, but stand back from the carcass as wolves eat.  Eventually, she’ll give up and return to her herd.

This came to mind when I saw the cow moose: didn’t this one have a calf with her? The last time I’d seen this cow, she stood with her calf, eating willows by the creek, a few yards east of here. Both animals looked up at me warily and steadily, as I drove slowly above them on the road. Cow moose have a reputation for being very aggressive about anyone near their young, so I kept a distance when I pulled my car over and stepped out to get a better look.

Snow had piled into miles of hills and mountains, the whiteness only relieved where snow had drifted off the tops of sagebrush and where willow bushes ran along the creeks. The two moose nearly disappeared against the dark maroon willow stands, their forms picked out by patches of sunny snow behind the bushy branches. The calf was nearly 2/3 the size of its mother and both animals stood vibrant, with glossy coats, their breaths steaming.

Now, the cow moose was alone, running through the plateau. I looked for wolves, but couldn’t see anything following her. I was driving slowly and the ridge rose and fell, chopping up my view.

The moose trotted then suddenly broke into a gallop. Her legs seemed to move independently beneath her massive torso, a blocky dark rectangle of muscle. She had none of the springy, rocking quality you see in fleeing elk. Her body remained level to the ground as her knees pranced high and fast.  Power, I thought.

As I slowed the car to watch, I noticed a coyote standing on the opposite side of the road. It stared, not at the fleeing moose, but away to the south. Was the coyote watching wolves tear up the carcass of this cow’s calf? Coyotes keep tabs on wolves, for their own safety and in hopes of stealing from the wolves’ kills later.

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I began a story of how it went: probably the cow moose had just run across the road, away from the wolves that had been eating her young. She had lingered and was finally giving up and leaving, but she was still agitated and that’s why she was trotting off like that. But why had she sped up to a gallop?

In this ecosystem, though I had seen many wolves hunting other animals and had seen moose, I had never seen wolves actually hunt moose, so I wasn’t familiar with cow moose behavior with wolves. I know that at times, cow moose, like cow elk, chase and attack wolves. I have seen the fierceness of a cow moose protecting her young. Several years ago, I saw a cow moose charge a massive bull bison that she seemed to think was too close to her calf. The bull bison chased the cow into a lake, where she swam frantically along the shoreline, as the bison knocked down and butted the young calf. At first, the calf looked dead. But gradually it lifted its head. That evening, the cow lay next to the calf, but it couldn’t nurse without standing. The cow moose waited with the calf for days till, to my surprise, it recovered enough to walk off with her.

I turned the car around and we drove back the way we’d come and immediately my friend Cessie spotted the moose. The cow had crossed the creek and was heading back the way she’d come, only on the other side of a deep draw. Another wildlife watcher pulled up behind us and mentioned he had just seen the elk herd bunch up and then run into that same draw, which was a deep ravine. So the wolf was still out there. And the moose had gone from trotting to galloping. Perhaps the wolves had not killed the calf, but were pursuing the cow.

It’s amazing how the human brain scrambles around for meaning, for a story. This tendency intensifies when I’m in the field, even though I try to fight against closing off the narrative too soon, or imposing too many assumptions. Yet shaping an experience into a narrative seems to be human nature. I’ve seen it with my students in writing seminars, and I see it in people I encounter out here: wildlife watchers, naturalists, citizen scientists, wildlife photographers, or tourists.

Perhaps this tendency to look for the story is a survival adaptation in humans. Getting the tale straight might be part of reading other animals’ behavior right; it might help us at other times stay safe, scavenge, or hunt. Tale-telling is also a lot of fun. If a trait is adaptive it starts to feel good.  Perhaps we want to believe that stories do contain meaning and realizations, because something that feels so good and right simply must connect us to larger truths. If nothing else, shaping the story reignites my curiosity and honesty, which continually test and reopen my narrative. I may learn the most where the perfect tale falls apart.

There are times when story-telling seems to trigger the same pleasure-causing neurotransmitters that encountering a wild animal does. If I’m constructing the story as I watch wildlife, like a detective in the field, the pleasure becomes closely mixed with the thrill, the slight danger, of seeing a wild animal close by who is behaving according to the logic of her mysterious survival and experience. As an animal myself, I intuit her experience, yet as different species, she and I cannot confirm that we understand things the same way. Still, I feel as if I have hold of a thread that can lead me to some crucial understanding about existence.

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Later in the day, Cessie and I snow shoed around the plateau area where we’d seen the animals. Within minutes, we picked up large moose tracks, near where I’d first imagined the cow had left her dead calf to the wolves. Soon we found a second track of a smaller moose: her calf. But there were no birds, no blood spots, and no signs of a carcass. Perhaps the carcass was far from here. We also found the coyote track, but no wolf tracks at all. No answers there.

The north side of the road had more surprises in store for us: the calf and her mother moose had traveled to the north side together. The tracks were fresher there, so the calf had not been left dead on the south side of the road. When I first saw the cow moose trotting, her calf was somewhere nearby, it seemed.

We followed the tracks towards the draw. Yet, before we got to the ravine, we saw the cow moose track split off and run in a different direction, to the area where we had first seen her this morning. We found a single wolf track following her! When we turned back to get to the lip of the ravine, where the elk ran down a hill of breakneck steepness, we found one smaller calf moose track plunge down, but no wolf track. We also could see the calf track climb the far hill out of the draw. Yet, after the two moose split, the wolf never followed the calf.  Why not?

Did the cow moose trot slowly in order to lure the wolf to her and switch into a gallop when the wolf neared? Perhaps the cow was trying to decoy the wolf away from her calf.   I wondered if the wolf was young, 1-2 years old. A more experienced wolf might have known not to follow the slow-seeming cow, but to stick with the calf. When we last saw the cow moose on the opposite side of the ravine, circling back east, was she trotting to reunite with her calf?  I have seen very little moose behavior, so I don’t really know.  Yet, I think this story is the one that most closely matches what I know of ungulate-wolf behaviors.

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Five days later, I saw what looked like the same cow moose and her calf feeding again in the willows. The moose tilted their heads high up into the branches, reaching for willow tips. They looked breathtakingly healthy, but were shy of the ring of people gathered on the road, watching them. Gradually they moved off: cow first, calf following.

Copyright Ilona Popper February 2014

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