For an animal that stands as tall as 7 feet at the shoulder and weighs as many as 1,500 pounds, the moose has an uncanny ability for slipping silently into forest shadows and escaping notice. But in areas of Montana and western Wyoming, moose themselves are becoming shadows. Indeed, in those states, herds of the Shiras moose (Alces alces shirasi) are shrinking, and with no clear explanation why and no way of stopping the decline, biologists are concerned that some herds may soon vanish entirely.
Shiras moose populations began dwindling sometime around 1988-89 and the early 1990s. The losses have been most severe in Wyoming, particularly in Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which extends south from Yellowstone to the Wyoming Range. The current drop-off stands in stark contrast to the moose's rapid growth in these areas little more than a century ago. Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, Shiras herds expanded, in part because of the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872 and in part because of the removal of livestock-threatening predators, namely gray wolves and grizzly bears. And until recently, the greatest threat to the moose's survival was overhunting, an issue mitigated largely by regulations limiting the number of individuals killed annually by hunters.
Although precisely what triggered the current decline remains a mystery, two factors -- the Yellowstone fires of 1988, which burned a total of 1.2 million acres (793,000 of which were within the park’s boundaries), and drought -- converged at the onset of the moose's descent. Moose thrive on the new vegetation that grows following a wildfire, but wildfire combined with drought may have limited the successional growth of aspen and other nutrient-filled plants on which moose depend.
Nutrient availability is especially important for pregnant females, which require areas with abundant and diverse vegetation. Such areas offer the greatest quantity and quality of nutrients, which help the developing fetus grow. Some biologists suspect that low-quality forage that came to occupy the burn areas following the 1988 fires contributed to nutritional deficiencies that caused a reduction in reproductive output among females. In addition, nutritional deficiencies render moose more susceptible to other factors, such as severe winters, tick infestation, and predation by wolves and grizzlies.
But while decreased quality and abundance of food may have played (and may still be playing) a significant role in Wyoming’s moose declines, researchers have also estimated that an astonishing 50 percent or more of the state’s moose are infected with a fly-borne nematode known as Elaeophora schneideri. In moose and elk, E. schneideri invades blood vessels in the head and neck, thereby impeding blood flow to vital tissues and potentially causing blindness, abnormal growth of antlers, gangrene of facial parts, or loss of coordination and other symptoms of brain damage. Whereas E. schneideri infestation often is not fatal in animals such as deer, it can cause death in elk and moose.
The Shiras moose is also facing other threats, perhaps the most significant of which is habitat loss from human activities. And despite regulations, overhunting remains a real concern. But while Shiras populations on the western side of Wyoming are in decline, populations in other areas of the state appear to be stable. Conservationists are hopeful that efforts to better understand the factors underlying both population stability and population decline will help with finding ways to rescue Shiras herds at risk of extirpation.
Kara Rogers is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and author of Science Up Front on the Britannica Blog. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology, but enjoys reading and writing about all things science. You can follow her on Twitter at @karaerogers.
This post also appears on the Britannica Blog.