Moose are at the top of many visitors’ wish lists for wildlife encounters in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. But these six foot tall members of the deer family can be pretty elusive considering they are the tallest mammal in the ecosystem. To find a moose, you need to learn a little about their lifestyle and learn to think like a moose.
Step 1: Know their habitat
Like most hooved animals, moose are herbivores, but you will not see one grazing alongside bison and elk in a field. Moose are browsers – animals that, like giraffes in Africa, prefer the leaves, buds and barks of trees and shrubs. Willow shrubs are the predominant plant in our local moose’s diet. Moose will also feed on aquatic vegetation in ponds. So to find a moose, look for them in ecosystems that are rich in wetlands and deciduous trees and shrubs such as willow, cottonwood and aspen. Beaver ponds, fresh or abandoned, are one of the best places to look for moose. Some sagebrush flats will attract moose in the cooler months of the year if they are rich in Antelope Bitterbrush, one of the moose’s favorite foods. In the winter they can sometimes be found browsing on fir trees on mountain slopes. Lodgepole pine is indigestible to moose, which is why most of Yellowstone has such a proportionally low moose population – 4 out of every 5 trees over Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres are lodgepole pine. Look for Yellowstone moose in some of the corners of the park that are richer in firs, willows and aspen. Moose are more abundant in Grand Teton, found in both wetland and mountain habitats.
Step 2: Know their preferences
So now you’re in the right habitat for moose – lots of beaver ponds, lots of willow shrubs – but there are no moose to be seen. Check the weather and time of day! Moose are far more prone to overheating than other species of hooved animals. Their dark coats absorb heat from the sun and moose can’t sweat like a horse to cool off. And a moose’s “internal engine” is working much harder than other animals. A bison weighing in at 1,800 lbs needs about 20-25 pounds of grass a day, but a local Shiras moose weighing in at 900 lbs needs about 40-70 pounds of leaves, twigs and aquatic vegetation per day. So even though a moose weighs on average half as much as a bison, they eat 2-3 times more pounds of food per day. The heat produced by their digestive systems means a moose runs much hotter than a bison. A bison, even with their thick, dark coats, can sit outside in 85-degree Fahrenheit sun all day, but a moose would keel over dead from heat stroke in a few hours.
Generally a moose with its heavy winter coat starts to feel uncomfortable at temperatures in the 30s and above, while temperatures in the 50s can be fatal. Once the smooth coat of summer replaces the thick winter coat, temperature tolerance goes up by 20 degrees – temperatures in the 50s begin to feel too warm, and temperatures in the 80s can be deadly. Moose are usually hidden from view during the warmer time of day, seeking the cool shade or soaking in cold water. These figures are for moose on sunny days, which comprise more than half the days in our local ecosystem. This does not mean you’ll never see a moose in the middle of the day in summer, but your chances are better during the cooler mornings and evenings. But on cloudy, rainy, and snowy days, the intense radiating heat from the sun is blocked and moose may be more active.
So the take-home of all this talk about temperature? In the warmer months of the year, begin at dawn and keep an eye on the weather. As long as the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, keep on looking! If the weather is cloudy or wet, great – keep looking even if the temperature is above 50. If the weather begins to approach 60s and sunny, maybe take a break and try again in the evening when the sun begins to go down.
Step 3: Be patient
The last nugget of knowledge you need to bring to your moose-finding adventure is the value of patience. There are only 100 moose scattered over Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, and about 400-500 moose in the entire Jackson Hole population (of which Grand Teton is a part). During the cooler months of the year we see moose on most of our Grand Teton day tours and custom multiday tours, but in the warmer months there will always be a few trips that luck does not play in our favor. Throughout fall to late spring, sunrise tours have an edge over sunset tours because temperatures are cooler for longer. But during the summer months, sunset tours can sometimes be more successful than sunrise tours. Summer weather patterns in the Tetons tend to be clear and sunny in the morning, and cloudy with occasional brief thunderstorms in the afternoon. Moose will come out earlier than usual on those cloudy late afternoons. After the radiant heat of the sun has prevented them from feeding all day long, they are eager to begin to fill their four-chambered stomachs as soon as that sun is shaded out by some clouds.
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This post was guest written by Wildlife Expeditions guide, Sarah Ernst. Sarah is a passionate educator that has been guiding for Wildlife Expeditions since 2011. She loves using stories, science, and dialogue to help her guests learn, connect, and form a deeper relationship with the national parks as well as their own home ecosystem. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA in 2005. Prior to arriving in Jackson Hole, Sarah was the Education and Exhibits Coordinator at Kiawah Island Nature Center in South Carolina. In her free time Sarah enjoys exploring the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with hiking boots, kayaks, skis, and snowshoes – usually accompanied by her loyal dog Linus.