Moose are popular with photographers and wildlife watchers and Alaska's official land mammal is pursued by thousands of hunters every year. About 7,000 moose are harvested annually, providing more than three million pounds of wild, organic meat. About 90 percent are harvested by Alaskans.
Knowing what makes a moose healthy, and understanding what it takes to maintain healthy moose populations is important to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game - and to wildlife managers in moose country across the North. But a full-grown, three-quarter-ton moose can be a dangerous animal to study. A moose kick can kill a wolf, and more than one person has been on the receiving end of such deadly blows.
It's tough for a biologist to dog the heels of a foraging wild moose to watch exactly how it eats, or to closely monitor the pregnancy of a cow moose. But tame moose don't object to human company. By bottle raising moose and conditioning them to human contact, biologists at the Kenai Moose Research Center have cultivated cooperative subjects.
"This facility has so much to offer," said biologist Stacy Crouse, who worked at the center for 13 years. "There are things you can do here that you can't do in the wild, and plenty of things you can test out and apply to the wild."
Stacy Crouse and her husband John met while working at the center, and John now serves as the director. As scientists and caretakers their duties have ranged from performing ultrasound examinations and drawing blood to fixing fences and hazing bears.
The facility is tucked into the rolling hill and lake country of the northwestern Kenai Peninsula on land that is part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. An hour drive down gravel roads from Sterling, the center is home to about 20 moose. More than 15 miles of 8-foot-tall woven wire wildlife fencing encloses four tracts, each a square-mile, with a landscape of trees, meadows and small lakes. In a ranch-like setting, the lab and research facilities, bunkhouse and caretaker's cabin are surrounded by rolls of fencing material, building supplies and farming paraphernalia.
Over the years, moose researchers from Norway, Sweden, Russia, Japan, Canada and other American states have worked on projects at the center. Many of the studies at the center are long term, because scientists are able to work with the same animals for years, an opportunity rarely available in the wild.
"More than 250 scientific papers based on research at the center have been published," said biologist Wayne Regelin, a former Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner who worked at the center in the 1970s and early '80s. "A lot of pioneering work has been done at the center - how to capture moose using drugs, studies on moose-habitat relationships, various ways to evaluate moose physical condition - it's a leader in moose research."
In the 1990s and early in this decade, captive caribou were also studied at the facility. These days, it’s all moose.
The first moose in the facility were not tractable, hand raised animals, but wild moose. When the facility was first built back in the late 1960s, the pens served as moose traps, with entrances that let Kenai moose enter but not escape.
“Initially they trapped wild moose in the pens,” John Crouse said. “They first measured all the vegetation in the pens, and then they trapped moose in the pens and studied the impact on the vegetation. At one point they had 40 moose in one of the pens over winter. They were getting a sense for how much vegetation was required to sustain a moose - not only how much but also the nutritional content of the forage.”
In the wild, a bull moose may live about 13 years, a cow moose about 17 years. Scores of different moose have lived at the center over the past four decades, many hand raised by John and Stacy Crouse and other staff.
“We are still hand raising moose as we need them. We are not a receptacle for orphaned animals,” John Crouse said. “Every two or three years we raise a group of animals so we have several cohorts available to study.”
“Most of the moose are tractable,” John Crouse said. “The hand raised animals will put up with us standing next to them watching. We are able to sample blood, feces and urine, recording what and how much they’re eating. We can collect urine samples directly, get them on a scale and weigh them, and do an ultra sound exam – all without having to sedate them. There are no drugs involved; we’re just walking around with them. For weights we lead them down to the scale, they get up on the scale and we get a weight measurement.”
"The only way to really find what a moose is eating is to watch a moose eat," Stacy Crouse said. "You can go in after the fact and measure bite size and get ideas about what part of the plant they're exploiting. That's why we've put so much effort over the past few years to raise these calves, to have a moose that's tractable and will stand next to you like a dog, but will forage like a wild moose,"
"If you don't have bottle raised animals you really can't do these kinds of studies, they just growl at you," she added.
Fish and Game has collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, as well as graduate students doing doctoral and masters work. Currently all research is done by state biologists, and the work has direct applications to moose management in Alaska.
“The bulk of our funding is through Pittman-Robertson funds,” John Crouse said. “It funds research to develop techniques and understand relationships that help us manage wild moose populations.”
Moose live off their reserves in winter, supplementing with the meager woody browse they can find. Moose winter nutrition is tied to their survival, their calving and their impact on the habitat.
“Right now we’re looking at protein nutrition over the winter, using nitrogen isotopes and various metabolites, to determine whether protein comes from body stores or the diet,” John Crouse said. “This is the second year for this line of investigation. We’ve done a lot of work with body fat. Protein has been a lot more difficult. Fat stores you can measure directly with an ultrasound, they build up and deplete, but protein is a lot more dynamic. We do know moose store fat and protein for use in periods of deficit in the winter. We’re looking at when they don’t have enough protein in the diet and start using body stores, and how far it goes before it becomes detrimental to them and what the impacts are on reproduction and such.”
Another project at the center has implications for moose researchers around the globe – improving our understanding of the data collected by the new GPS and VHF devices used to track and study wild moose. These devices, usually attached to collars, are used to study animals ranging from wolverines and bears to moose and mountain goats. Early devices enabled researchers to simply locate animals, now devices can record, store and even transmit a wide range of data. The tame and observable moose in the large pens are perfect test subjects.
“We can put these out and correlate the behaviors to the data the collars are collecting,” John Crouse said. “If activity measures are different enough, eventually we may be able to say whether they're nibbling on low bush cranberries or stripping willows, rather than just determining whether animals are actively foraging or not.”
Fish and Game biologists are collaborating on the project with researchers at the University of Minnesota at Duluth and using collars from several of the different product manufacturers.
“There’s been a lot of good people come through the facility,” John Crouse said. “The Moose Research Center was given the Group Achievement Award by The Wildlife Society in 1992 for outstanding achievements benefitting wildlife.”