HOMER - Despite what people may think when they enjoy the sights of Homer's city-dwelling moose population, hay is for horses - not moose.
In fact, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Assistant Biologist Thomas McDonough said hay proves fatal for a moose because it plugs the digestive system. That keeps the moose from being able to take in their proper forage of willow and other winter browse. At that point, the moose would starve to death.
McDonough said he received a report of a moose wandering down the Homer Spit last month. It is unusual for a moose to go on the Spit, as there isn't much to forage on and is out of their range. Occasionally, however, a moose decides to check things out. The report contained the additional information that someone was feeding the stray moose some hay.
"There was a pile of hay there when I arrived," McDonough said. "If the moose remained out there, there was a good chance it would die, either from eating this novel food or from becoming dependent on humans for food."
State law deems it illegal to feed a moose. If McDonough had caught whoever had fed the moose hay, the people could have been issued a $310 violation. Not even a muffin, a carrot or an apple is innocent fodder for a moose, because it triggers a dramatic shift in diet that moose are not evolved to adapt to quickly, he added.
"Hay will kill them. They can't change their diet from winter browse to hay," he explained. "That would take weeks for the bacteria in the Rumen (part of the four-chambered stomach) to change."
Depending on the time of year, the bacteria in a moose's stomach is able to proliferate and digest the food item that is abundant at that time. McDonough further explained that, in the summer, there is a different composition of bacteria than in the winter.
"It is a multi-week process for bacteria to change significantly enough to take in a different food source," McDonough noted. "There is no novel food available outside of human influence."
Moose are currently busy munching on birch, ornamental trees that people sometimes plant, alder and grass.
"They will partake in whatever is exposed and available," he said.
The moose population currently settles in at about 500 animals in sub unit 15C, which extends from Kasilof to Homer's East End. These moose can range about 50 miles per season, traveling back and forth in search of good winter browse. The fact that the past few winters have been relatively mild makes life easier for the moose. Many have settled in the City of Homer.