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on Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Moose are year-round residents of Red Rock Lakes NWR. They are most often seen along creeks among willows. The large, dark brown animals are also seen in the aspen groves lining the road near Upper Lake Campground. Moose can be distinguished from other members of the deer family by their dark coloration and overhanging upper lip. Male moose have the world's largest antlers, reaching up to 80 inches from tip to tip.
Moose are an obvious and dominant part of the Centennial Valleys mammalian fauna. They share the Refuge with 41 other species of mammals. They are much sought after by tourists. The Refuge is also one of the most well known and highly contested areas in Montana for hunters seeking moose.
The number of moose found in the Centennial Valley has varied a great deal over time. Part of the fluctuations are due to different survey techniques and weather during surveys. Hunting and changes in habitat have also impacted moose populations.
In recent years, about 50 to 60 moose have summered on the Refuge. Winter numbers have varied from 43 to 112. Winter numbers are more variable because the snowpack is lighter in some years, and allows moose to continue to use timbered habitats more. Since moose are difficult to count from the air when they are in timber, total numbers seen are lower those years. There is also undoubtedly some fluctuation in nearby herds that winter in the area.
The same general areas are used by moose year-round. The willow riparian areas receive most of the use. Between 84 and 93 percent of moose sightings are made in these habitats. The willow areas provide plentiful food and summer cover, as well as visual security from people. The conifer forest habitats provide thermal cover in winter, and additional food resources.
About 98 percent of the summer diet consists of browse, including Booth, Geyer, Bebb, and planeleaf willows, bog birch, aspen, alpine fir, silverberry, and alders. Moose also eat some forbs, especially sticky geranium, as well as sedges and other aquatic plants found in the margins of wetlands. In winter, over 99 percent of the diet is browse. Again, willow predominates. With so much browse in the diet, there is little competition for grass forage with domestic livestock. In fact, one of the reasons cattle grazing occurs is to provide areas of short grass which greens up early and is sought after by moose.
Moose mate in September and October. After a gestation period of about 243 days, the cow drops one to two calves weighing 20 to 30 pounds apiece. The cows are very protective of their young, and cow moose with calves should be given a wide berth by anyone wandering around their habitat. Reproduction is affected by many factors, including bull:cow ratios, density, habitat quality and the amount of food and cover it provides, and winter severity. There are few predators capable of killing moose calves in this area, and disease does not seem to be a significant problem. A few calves, and some adult moose, are lost every year by entanglement in wire fences, one reason the Refuge has removed or converted many fences to more wildlife-friendly designs. By fall, the young moose weigh 200 to 300 pounds. (Adult males weigh 550 to 1000 pounds, and adult females weigh between 425 to 800 pounds.)
Come fall, some of the moose in the area begin to shift their ranges. In the early fall, it appears as though many moose leave the Refuge. Based on studies of marked moose, at least some move to Idaho to winter. In late fall there appears to be some general movement of moose on to the Refuge. These are probably moose that summer at higher elevations in the Centennial Range or the Gravellys to the north. This increase in Refuge numbers continues through December most years. Without a large number of marked moose, it is difficult to say with any certainty exactly what is happening, but it appears that there are three different herd segments with different movement patterns using the Refuge.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks sets moose seasons every year, after consultation with the Refuge. The harvest is designed to manage herd numbers to prevent overbrowsing and maintain habitat quality for long-term health of habitat and the herd. The Refuge employs a later hunting season opening date than surrounding areas. This helps extend viewing opportunities while allowing for moose to move into the Refuge from mountainous areas, thus taking the harvest pressure off any resident animals. Success is high for those hunters that spend the time and hunt hard.
Our current moose management goals are to maintain a viable population of 50 to 70 adults and 20 to 25 calves in summer, and winter 60 to 90 moose in high quality habitat. Management activities consist mainly of two to three aerial censuses per year and monitoring willow and riparian habitat condition. Some burning of willows was done in recent years to try and remove older decadent growth and stimulate resprouting. This met with mixed success.
With continued attention given to their status and habitat, moose should remain abundant in the area for many years to come.