Many more moose: Local population has increased dramatically in 20 years
Seeing a moose in the Yampa Valley is no longer a rare occurrence as the population of the large, long-legged animals in Routt County has increased an estimated sevenfold over the past 20 years.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife Terrestrial Biologist Eric Vannatta estimates the moose population in Routt County has grown from some 50 animals two decades ago to 350 now.
The local population of Shiras moose is healthy and continues to expand, as the animals travel and disperse into parts of the valley that provide good habitat, Vannatta said.
CPW officials consider the high number of moose a great sign for Northwest Colorado because it represents a successful reintroduction story.
The moose in Routt County include generations of animals that gradually migrated south from the North Park area near Walden. According to CPW, Colorado wildlife managers transplanted 24 moose from Utah and Wyoming in 1978 and 1979 to North Park.
The growing number of local moose is apparent at the Steamboat Resort, which Vannatta estimates is home for up to 30 moose.
Moose activity at the ski area was tracked during a four-year study from 2017 to 2021 to help understand the animals’ seasonal movement patterns. For the study, project partners CPW, the ski area and U.S. Forest Service tracked 21 animals that were darted, collared and ear tagged. The GPS collars dropped off the moose remotely in October 2021.
“The moose study originated because of increased moose activity on the mountain and our concern about potential risk and safety issues that could come from skier-moose conflicts,” said Lance Miles, the ski area’s project coordinator. “The first collaring program was successful, and we are looking forward to the next phase of collaring.”
Missy Dressen, USFS wildlife biologist for 23 years in Steamboat Springs, said the study showed, a bit surprisingly, that when moose settle at the ski area, the animals largely stay put.
• Give moose plenty of space and distance. If you encounter a moose at a close distance, back away slowly.
• Be a responsible pet owner. Off-leash or barking dogs may incite a moose to charge. Moose equate dogs with wolf predators.
• Never walk between a cow moose and her calf.
• Bull moose during the fall rut season (mid-September through October) are less predictable and may be more likely to respond aggressively. An aggressive moose will pin its ears back, lick their snout or raise hackles. Moose can run up to 35 mph.
For more information, visit the CPW webpage Living with Wildlife in Moose Country at CPW.state.co.us/moose-country.
“We are finding that a lot of moose are just making their home on the ski area,” Dressen said.
Dressen said moose gravitate to marshy and riparian areas where they eat willows, young aspens, sarvisberry and chokecherry bushes.
“We find some of the moose are really attracted to Buffalo Pass, Steamboat ski area and Rabbit Ears Pass because they are such wet habitats with ground water and tons of willow,” Dressen said. “And they love the dark-timber areas.”
Vannatta studies digital maps of the collared moose’s travel history, and has found that movements often center around BC Ski Way, Why Not and the trees near Vagabond and Bashor runs at the ski area, as well as Forest Service land and meadows stretching southwest from the resort.
The moose stay lower on the ski resort during calving season in May through mid-June and disperse more toward the city as plants leaf and bloom in the summers. Residents should be aware that moose are often found in the Fish Creek Falls, Uranium Mine trail, Burgess Creek and Rotary Park areas, Vannatta said.
Both biologists are complementary of the ski area’s efforts with the study and its proactive actions to close runs due to moose when necessary. They say a moose study with GPS tracking collars conducted on a ski area is rare.
To minimize conflicts, the ski area has deployed signage, along with undertaking visitor education and best-management practices. The moose tend to hang out near green runs, which are also frequented by beginning and young skiers, said Vannatta, who earned a master’s degree in wildlife biology.
Dressen said wildfire fuel reduction and wildlife habitat improvement projects in the Thunderhead, Burgess Creek and Sundown areas of the ski resort have improved moose habitat where beetle-killed trees were removed and shrubby young plants returned.
“I’m really proud of the efforts the ski area is taking on habitat restoration and helping us on moose management,” Dressen said.
The three organizations will team up again for a smaller study to collar 10 moose at the ski area this fall after hunting season. As part of the overall CPW hunting management policy, the ski resort boundaries are included in moose hunting permitted lands, the biologists noted.
Vannatta said one key reason to continue the study is to learn how moose will react to disruptions from new construction projects, tree removal and expansion at the ski resort.
The biologists hope community members continue to learn as much as possible about reducing human and moose conflicts because the animals — which can weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds and reach 6 feet at the shoulders — will continue to expand in population and breadth in the Yampa Valley.
“We are in a really good spot here to be proactive rather than reactive,” Vannatta said.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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