Biologists get a glimpse of the secret lives of moose

Radio collars allow researchers to follow Anchorage moose

Posted: Monday, December 30, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Through frolic and mishap, these were very particular moose.

One cow took a grand tour around Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, then marched seven miles to the mountains in a one-day trek through Midtown traffic.

Another one spent months browsing near Oceanview, then sneaked up behind Glen Alps for mating season.

A pregnant moose, skinny and stressed, abandoned her winter home in a gravel pit during green-up, only to die on the bluff near a park a few weeks later. Her nearly born calf died too.

These were among five animals fitted with radio collars and followed electronically for seven months this year. The results offered a glimpse into the secret lives of Anchorage's 1,000 urban moose.

The collars recorded the moose's locations every 4.5 hours. Biologists immobilized the animals with tranquilizer darts, recovered the collars and plotted the movements on maps of Anchorage.

They found the animals didn't wander from place to place at random but tended to haunt certain greenbelts for weeks or months at a time, said Rick Sinnott, Anchorage area biologist for the Department of Fish and Game.

In general, they tried to avoid people, cars and dogs. When traveling, the moose often walked directly through miles of neighborhoods, across highways and commercial zones to reach favorite wild spots. Railroads, strip malls and divided highways didn't hinder them much.

"One of my theories is that pregnant cow moose return to the area where they were born," Sinnott said.

Sometimes they traveled back and forth between select woods or bogs, suggesting these urban animals knew exactly where they were going and why.

"Are they there because that's where they found food? Or are they there because it gives them some sort of refuge from people and dogs?" Sinnott said. "It looks like in many cases, it's a combination."

The study was launched last winter when Sinnott and assistant state biologist Jessy Coltrane tranquilized the five cows and equipped them with tracking collars loaned from a study of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula.

Each device contained a global positioning system unit that took fixes off satellites and stored the surface coordinates in a tiny onboard computer. Each device also transmitted a radio signal that allowed the biologists to track down the animal later.

This fall, Sinnott and Coltrane spent weeks searching for the four remaining cows, sometimes spending several days stalking a single wily animal.

Before it snowed, they put new collars on the four moose, then caught and collared six more animals. The data from those will be retrieved and analyzed next year.

"They're already moving all over the place," Coltrane said.

Sinnott hopes the study will show which habitat Anchorage's moose like best and how their preferences change during the year.

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