We hear a lot of calls on the radio scanner here at the Gazette — fires, crashes, the occasional robbery — but one of my favourites is the moose on the loose.
When one of these huge mammals shows up in town, action is sure to follow. Sometimes they’ll wander through town without a problem. Other times they’ll smash through fences and neighbourhoods, and the police will corral them with cars, darts and nets. Whatever happens, it’s a rare chance to see one of the biggest beasts in Alberta up close.
Moose are the biggest members of the deer family, says Hinterland Who’s Who, standing taller than any horse. Unlike horses, they’ll often have a big pendant of fur hanging from their throat.
They’re the biggest mammals you’re likely to see around St. Albert, says Hugh Wollis, Alberta Fish and Wildlife’s wildlife biologist for the Big Lake region, and can be instantly recognized by their huge size and dark brown coat. You might mistake them for horses from a distance.
Moose are a relatively rare sight around St. Albert, says local naturalist Ludo Bogaert, but they do frequent Big Lake. “The moose is such a beautiful animal, properly designed for this country,” he says. “You’re lucky when you see one.”
Moose have big noses and a keen sense of smell, Wollis says. They also have very poor eyesight – stand still, and they might not even notice you.
They’re also well adapted to the cold north, Wollis continues. Their hides are extremely tough and warm – so warm that they can bed down in snow and barely melt any of it – and their long legs let them easily step over fallen trees and through deep snow.
And they can do so extremely quietly, Bogaert says. “For the size of an animal like that, they can move through the forest like a ghost.” He attributes their stealth to their four legs, which they can use to better balance themselves. A spooked moose makes a lot of noise, he adds, especially when a male’s antlers clatter against trees.
The antlers of a male moose are rounded and palm-shaped, Wollis says, unlike the pointy horns of a deer. They’re also shed every year, being more like fingernails than bones. Some sets will grow to 180 centimetres wide. Males use these horns to fight each other and woo the ladies.
Moose typically mate in October, according to Wollis. The female will make a noise Bogaert describes as “a distant chainsaw,” and the male responds with a shorter, cough-like “mwah.”
St. Albert moose tend to do laps around Big Lake that start and end at the white spruce forest by Ray Gibbon Drive, Bogaert says.
They spend most of their time eating willow branches, poplars and red osier dogwood, Bogaert says – “moose” is derived from the Algonquin “mooswa,” which means “twig-eater.” “I have seen them strip the leaves off a willow branch in one graceful strip.”
Moose will eat about 20 kilograms of twigs a day in the winter, Wollis says. “This is very difficult stuff to digest,” he notes, and the animals need very specific bacteria in their guts to live off it. Feed them straw or grain, and they’ll die with a full stomach.
But that appetite, combined with a lack of predators around cities, can lead moose into trouble. “They tend to eat themselves out of house and home,” Wollis says.
Overpopulation can lead hungry or amorous moose into cities in search of food or mates, where they can become lost and confused. Since they tip the scales at 600 kilograms, that’s no small problem.
The biggest risk is that a car will hit the moose, says Leah Jackson, the city’s environmental manager. Drivers should be extra careful around Ray Gibbon Drive, McKenney Ave. and LeClair Way, she notes, as these are high traffic regions for moose.
Anyone who spots a moose that’s not in the river valley should call the RCMP, Jackson says, who will usually call in Fish and Wildlife. “In most cases they just kind of lead them through town,” she says, using their cars to herd them, but sometimes they have to break out the nets and tranquilizers.
And stay well back if you spot a mother and a calf, Wollis says. “The female moose with a calf is probably one of the most dangerous animals in the forest,” he says, and can be very aggressive.
Moose are usually pretty mellow, Bogaert says, but can deliver wolf-slaying kicks when threatened. If you see one, he advises that you keep your distance and speak in a reassuring voice. “The moose usually gets the message and disappears.”