Moose study could help Steamboat Resort better manage human-wildlife conflicts |

Moose study could help Steamboat Resort better manage human-wildlife conflicts

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Biologist Eric VanNatta monitors a young bull moose waking up from anesthesia in January 2023 near Steamboat Resort. After being immobilized with veterinary drugs, moose are administered oxygen, eye drops and hobbled to prevent injury. The captured moose are then outfitted with GPS collars to track their daily movements and given a blue ear tag to identify each animal.
Christy Bubenheim/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Just four months into the second phase of a moose collaring study at Steamboat Resort, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Biologist Eric VanNatta is learning the habits of local moose.

Within a few days of snowfall hitting about 200 inches this season, many of the moose moved to a lower elevation, VanNatta said. That type of finding may help guide Steamboat Ski Patrol’s human-wildlife management decisions as the resort opens 650 acres of new terrain next season in Pioneer Ridge and Fish Creek that is frequented by Shiras moose.

“We do know that a lot of animals are hanging out in that area earlier in the season. Several of those animals were in the new expansion area until mid-December,” VanNatta said. “It seems like those animals do use that area in the winter during lighter snow depth — or earlier in the winter season when snow isn’t as deep.”

After four years of studying a previous cohort of 21 collared moose from 2017-21, CPW tracked, darted, tagged and collared 10 new moose starting in October after hunting season. The collars will automatically release in October 2026. An estimated 30 moose make their home in-bounds at the resort in the spring and fall, and up to 10 moose live there during the winter months, VanNatta said.

The goal of the study’s second phase is to see how moose respond to more development and expansion at the resort, VanNatta said.

“We know what moose were doing before. We are curious to see if moose respond at all to additional development by moving to new areas or using the ski area differently,” VanNatta said. “If they are, should Ski Patrol be spending more time in certain areas looking out for moose?”

The biologist tracks moose travels via computer through the GPS-equipped collars. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, he could see three moose in-bounds at the resort, one north of the ski area, three in nearby neighborhoods and one below the currently out-of-bounds Pioneer Ridge area.

Ski Patrol employees often serve as the first responders during moose sightings, working to close off sections of runs as necessary when a moose settles down in-bounds. That run may stay closed for hours when the moose feels relatively out of sight, VanNatta said.

Ski patrollers answer a skier’s questions during a Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, closure of a section of Why Not at Steamboat Resort. Guests asked when the closure would be open, and the patrollers said when the moose moves out of the middle of the run.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“Moose move around probably less than most people think in the wintertime,” VanNatta said. “They are not looking to expend a lot of energy. They find food and shelter, and that’s really what they need in the winter to survive.”

Unfortunately, one of the newly collared bull moose was killed by a vehicle on Steamboat Boulevard recently. The bull moose is one of at least four moose that have died locally within the past 30 days.

VanNatta said two of the moose likely died from natural causes this harsh winter, and a cow moose was killed by a vehicle on North Park Road above Old Town. The cow had an approximately 9-month-old calf, but the biologist believes the calf is doing OK on its own.

Get the top stories in your inbox every morning. Sign up here:

VanNatta reminded motorists to observe speed limits and drive cautiously, especially at dawn and dusk as more large animals are using the roadways during this high snow season.

Another newly collared bull moose traveled out of the area toward North Park during the rutting season but will remain part of the current study.

“We are following eight now locally with a lot of information from these collars, which is really exciting from both a management and research perspective,” VanNatta said.

CPW staff are looking for another moose to collar following the traffic death. Residents who see adult moose in the area of Walton Creek Road, Apres Ski Way, Whistler Road or Burgess Creek Road are encouraged to call the CPW office.

“In addition to a lot of management implications, it’s really cool to follow these animals in the Steamboat area to see how they interact with our town and community and where do they go,” VanNatta noted.

As for next ski season when new acreage opens for in-bounds use where moose often hang out, VanNatta said education and Ski Patrol management will be key.

“In the winter with lighter snow depth, there is probably a high likelihood of people encountering moose in that area, so it’s really important to continue the message to give these animals some space,” VanNatta said. “In winter, we are worried about animals expending more energy than necessary from chasing or running away from people.”

Larry Desjardin, president of Keep Routt Wild, said moose can be more tolerant of human activity than other wildlife as long as they receive the space they desire.

“While people perceive moose as gentle Bullwinkles, they can be quite ornery critters and will not hesitate to defend their space if they feel encroached upon,” said Desjardin, who was one of the volunteers helping with the CPW collaring work. “In the winter, we need to educate skiers to keep their distance and definitely not take selfies.”

Both CPW and Keep Routt Wild remain concerned about human disturbances and the reach of summer recreation at the resort during calving season for elk and moose.

“From the previous collar efforts, we do know that moose definitely spend time on the ski hill in May and June when they are calving,” VanNatta said. “You don’t want to stress out those young animals because they don’t have that much energy to give, and they can’t tolerate being pushed around lot.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.