Moose are now thriving on Utah's brushy mountainsides, dispelling the notion that the largest member of the deer family needs muddy, low-lying swamp land to survive.
"We're seeing things happen in Utah that we haven't seen anywhere else," said state biologist Mike Welch. "We've got to redefine in our minds what moose habitat is. It looks like they're much more adaptable."Moose are a relative newcomer to Utah, the nation's second-driest state after Nevada. Biologists say records of early settlers contain no mention of moose, although they have detailed accounts of deer, elk and other animals.
"There are a lot of theories about why moose weren't residents when the white man showed up," said biologist Jeff Grandison. "The latest theory is the reason they didn't move south is because of aboriginal hunting."
Hundreds of years ago, the cumbersome moose were easy prey for Indian hunters. Unlimited hunting by white hunters in the 1800s and early 1900s also kept the moose in check.
Welch said even states like Montana and Wyoming, where moose herds have thrived for decades, had few moose in the 1800s.
"They were in fairly low densities there, too," Grandison said. "If you look at the old trappers' accounts . . . they never mentioned moose. Even in Montana and Wyoming, they're fairly recent."
Moose were first noticed in the 1950s in northern Utah's Uinta Mountains, where they apparently wandered from Wyoming. Since then, the animals, which now number an estimated 2,500, have been moving south, living on mountain brush land and finding shade in canyons and on north-facing slopes.
Grandison said the animals need water daily, but they don't need to live in tree-lined forests or swamps.
"We have moose in Morgan County where the only water is in stock ponds," he said. "It doesn't have to be a lily pad-covered lake.
"They need drink and shade," he said. "A lot of our moose never see a swamp or a lily pad-covered lake or a beaver pond or any of those classic things you see on the calendars. They'll use them if they have them, but they don't need them."
Biologists have launched a plan to accelerate the movement south. Welch and Grandison, who work in the Ogden office of the state Division of Wildlife Resources, have helped relocate dozens of surplus northern Utah moose.
"This is the farthest south, I guess anywhere in the world, that moose have been tried," said Norm Bowden, a biologist in southern Utah's Cedar City office.
Two years ago, 30 moose were taken from Echo Canyon and moved to the Fish Lake area and 10 more were transplanted this winter.
Biologists have made a request to transplant more moose even farther south in the Boulder Mountains next winter, since they probably wouldn't get that far south without help from man.
Unlike Alaskan moose, which can stand 7 feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 1,800 pounds, Utah's moose, known as shiras, are smaller and weigh 1,200 pounds maximum.
Bowden said ranchers generally support moose transplants because they don't compete with stock for food.
"The things I personally noticed is where we were taking them from, the ranchers were more concerned that we were taking them away," Bowden said. "There hasn't been a cattle conflict. There hasn't been the competition.
"Moose are really a non-competitive big game," he said. "They eat mostly browse, willows, quake and aspen, oak and mountain mahogany. They're more of a solitary animal. They'll stay up in the deep snow a lot longer than deer or elk."