There’s Moose In Them Thar Pastures

Alces alces and Other Ungulates

The purchase of a large piece of land, like the birth of a baby, demands a celebratory naming ritual. There is also a pragmatic side to naming property – if you own more than one place, you can’t intelligibly refer to both of them as ‘home’.  One of our neighbours has two acreages that he and his wife have named Snagwood and Truffle Farm (he’s a mycologist).  Taking his taxonomic lead, the first monikers we pondered for our own new real estate were mite oriented (“Arrenurus Acres”, “Hydrozetes Haven”, etc.), but these names seemed laboured and artificial.  Even we had a hard time saying them without feeling foolish.  One day, Dave was indulging his passion for noir by reading a 1965  Lawrence Block novel reprinted by Hard Case Crime books.  In “The Girl With the Long Green Heart“, a grifter named Johnny Hayden specialized in selling worthless real estate to wealthy Americans.  One of his potential patsies was leery of buying land sight unseen, as he had previously made a foolish purchase of a large acreage in northern Alberta based on a fabricated rumour of uranium.   And now he was stuck with “that tract of moose pasture up in Canada”.

Cover of Block's novel. Painting by Robert McGinnis. Plasticine moose by me.

Perfect!  And so Moose Pasture was christened.  I had thought the term to have been an invention of Block’s, but it was – and still is – commonly used to refer to muskeg proffered as mineral speculation (see http://www.kitco.com/ind/Dillon/aug042008.html, where you can also learn about “Big Boy Naked Shorting”).  According to the Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,  the phrase was coined in the early 1960’s in reference to worthless or unproven mineral claims in western Canada, and later was extended to any sort of land swindle.   Although we don’t currently feel swindled, at the time of purchase there were times when we wondered whether we had done something financially stupid.

Moose Pasture was named so in the absence of either of us having seen moose there.  It seemed very likely that they inhabited the quarter section given that we had seen a few moose in the beaver ponds at nearby Snagwood.  In the winter of 2006-07 we found evidence of moose in the form of tracks and piles of pellets in the snow.  In the spring of 2007 we saw a cow and calf on the other side of the main ‘lake’, and in summer of that year observed a young male swimming across it.  Our photographic documentation was slim, though, until I purchased a motion and heat activated trail camera in 2009.

Trail-camera photo of a bull moose, 8 Sept 2009. Yes, I doctored the red-eye.

Based on these photos and other observations, we estimate that half a dozen moose regularly use the same areas of Moose Pasture that we do.  Although we have seen several females, almost all the trail-camera photos are of males – perhaps female moose are more wary of the smell of humans lingering on the apparatus?

Close encounter between young male moose and trail camera, 20 June 2010

According to Art Rodgers’ informative and beautifully illustrated book “Moose“, those that frequent our property belong to the Northwestern subspecies, Alces alces andersoni.  This is neither the largest nor the smallest of the North American subspecies, but is the most widespread, ranging from northern Michigan to the eastern Yukon.  For some reason, I had never considered Alberta to be a moose-friendly province, and thought of Ontario and Quebec to harbour the greatest numbers.  To my surprise, Rodgers lists Alberta’s count of approximately 118,000 moose  in 1997 as outnumbering that in Quebec and equaling Ontario’s population.   The huge tome on moose ecology and management edited by Franzmann & Schwartz (2nd edition) has less up-to-date statistics, but they support Rodgers’ numbers.  British Columbia wins the Canadian stakes with a count of 175,000, about the same as in Alaska.

Hypothesis: cow moose, most recent calf, and previous year's calf. Not a trail-camera photo for a change (18 April 2010).

Other than Alces alces, the only species of ungulate currently on Moose Pasture is Odocoileus virginianus, the white-tailed deer.  They have occasionally been captured by the trail camera.  White-tails have the broadest distribution of any cervid in the world, and the most named subspecies.  The ones at Moose Pasture belong to the widespread and large-bodied subspecies dacotensis.

Male white-tailed deer caught by the trail camera (11 July 2009).

Although Elk Island National Park, just next door to Moose Pasture, purportedly has mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/elkisland/activ/activ1/d.aspx), we haven’t seen any on our property.  Perhaps it is too brushy and boggy for this species.  Wapiti (Cervus elaphus canadensis) and plains and wood bison (Bison bison bison and B. b. athabascae) also live in Elk Island N.P., where they were stocked in the early 1900’s.  Although wapiti and plains bison probably occupied Moose Pasture before European arrival, they were hunted out of the region about a 100 years ago.   The high fence around Elk Island N.P. keeps these large non-saltatory ungulates inside.

There are no wapiti at Moose Pasture, especially not this one, because it's from Jasper.

This bull bison seems irritated. Good thing I was on the other side of the Elk Island N.P. fence.

Other wild ungulates in Alberta are unlikely to have occupied Moose Pasture even before the Europeans, as caribou and bighorn sheep have more montane and/or northerly ranges.  But one additional ungulate species that probably roamed Moose Pasture recently is Bos taurus, the domestic cow.  The previous owner of our quarter section, and three other contiguous ones, was a farmer.  Rumour has it that the last time he had cattle on is property was 40 years ago.   Since then the nearest cows have been on farms a few km to the north, where they are kept company by the brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).  The cowbirds make it on to our land where I have seen their hulking offspring in the nests of tiny yellow warblers.  As much as one might dislike these parasites, they are native to the region, and even if there weren’t nearby cattle, the herds of bison in Elk Island N.P. would provide them with the bovine company they enjoy.

Cows, calves, and cowbirds a few km north of Moose Pasture.

To close this post, I’ll bring together the themes of mites, ungulates and parasites.  The abundant moose at Moose Pasture harbour even more abundant Dermacentor albipictus, the winter tick.  This ixodid can reach huge densities on their hosts, causing such irritation that the moose may rub off their guard hairs during the winter, and be left with nothing but their pale undercoat. Bill Samuel’s book “White as as Ghost…”  details the interesting and disquieting relationship between these big deer and their parasites.  This September as I was sitting in a lawn chair on the one cleared spot on Moose Pasture, I noticed a tickly sensation on my arm.  And my legs.  And inside my shirt. Appropriately named, because it was caused by a couple dozen larval Dermacentor albipictus.  None bit, probably because I don’t taste like a moose, but it was not my favourite acarine encounter at Moose Pasture.  The larvae ended up in ethanol, on slides, or run for COI in a colleague’s lab.  So there, ticks.  Don’t mess with acarologists.

Scanning electron micrograph of male Dermacentor albipictus. I do not like them.

References (excepting web references – see in text):

Block, L. 1965. The Girl With the Long Green Heart. Reprinted 2005 by HardCaseCrime.com

Franzmann, A.W. and C.C. Schwartz (editors). 2007. Ecology and Management of the North American Moose. 2nd edition.  University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

Rodgers, A. 2001. Moose. Voyageur Press, Inc., Stillwater, Minnesota.

Samuel, B. 2004. White as a Ghost: Winter Ticks & Moose. Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Edmonton, Alberta.

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