One of Colorado’s biggest wildlife attractions is not native to the state. Moose were brought to northern Colorado in the late 1970s, and in the past several years, more and more of the large mammals are showing up in the Aspen area, sometimes right in town.
So now, wildlife officials are working to understand just how many moose are in the state — and how to manage them.
The Northstar Nature Preserve is an idyllic spot for wildlife, particularly because a large part of the preserve is closed to humans. Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager Kurtis Tesch says moose are thriving in Northstar.
“They're going to browse on the willows, they’re going to hang out in the aspens and then come down into the meadow and graze down here,” he said. “The biggest thing is the undisturbed area. They don’t have a lot of interactions with humans, which makes it the perfect spot for them.”
But the river that runs through Northstar is a popular spot for people, too, and paddleboarders are increasingly running into moose, sometimes reporting as many as five at one time.
Aspen local Rob Fabrocini paddleboards five or six days a week in the summer, and he’s getting used to sharing the river with moose.
“I’ve had them cross the river right in front of me,” he said. Sometimes the moose get within five or six feet of Fabrocini — a little too close for comfort.
“When they look at you and their ears go back and the hair goes up — and I’ve had that happen to me — that’s when you got to pay attention,” Fabrocini said. “A couple times, I’ve turned around early just to avoid them.”
Hikers, mountain bikers, hunters and even backcountry skiers are all reporting more moose and in more areas around Aspen. Moose aren’t often scared off by people. If you’re in a moose’s path, experts say, you better move, quickly.
Tesch has seen encounters between moose and people turn dangerous quickly. Last winter, per state policy, he had to kill a moose after it charged and leveled a hiker on Independence Pass.
These types of encounters are new to the Roaring Fork Valley. Historical and fossil records show that Colorado probably never had self-sustaining moose herds. Colorado’s Division of Wildlife, which is now CPW, began bringing moose to northern Colorado in the late 1970s. The first 24 moose were translocated to North Park, which is northeast of Steamboat Springs, and that herd has grown steadily and pushed into nearby areas.
The state has translocated moose to four other locations: Laramie River Valley, Upper Rio Grande River Valley, Grand Mesa National Forest and White River National Forest near Meeker.
The moose in the Aspen area probably wandered here by navigating about 50 miles of mostly wild lands from Grand Mesa, where they were introduced from 2005 to 2007.
There are now moose in just about every drainage in the upper Roaring Fork River valley, Tesch said, but the specifics are harder to pin down.
"I can't say what the numbers are," he said.
It turns out that no one really can say. CPW estimates there are about 3,200 moose in the state, but Brad Petch, a senior biologist at CPW, said moose are notoriously difficult to count by traditional aerial methods — they don’t gather in large herds, and they often hang out in dense evergreen forests, so you can’t see them from above. Still, officials are certain that Colorado’s moose herds are growing quickly.
“The Grand Mesa, particularly, has been a tremendously productive moose population,” Petch said.
Across the state, population growth exceeds national averages. Petch said that’s to be expected, since Colorado’s moose are pioneers, moving into unused habitat.
“We don’t have the full suite of predators that they have up north,” he said, referring to predators such as wolves and grizzly bears in northern states, including Wyoming, Montana and Alaska.
Without these predators, there are two factors that can keep rampant population growth in check: the quality of habitat, especially as more moose settle and breed in more places, and hunting.
Petch said there has been a recent change in the state’s philosophy about moose.
“For many years, our principle value was watchable wildlife, the opportunity to see moose in the wild, with very limited sport hunting,” Petch said. “That’s really shifted in the last three or four years in almost every moose population in this region.”
Now, he says, hunting is a “primary management tool.” So, as conflicts in mountain towns and run-ins on trails rise, so do the numbers of hunting licenses.
There were more than 500 licenses available to shoot a moose this year — more than double the number from 5 years ago. That upward trend is likely to continue, and Tesch said there will probably be more local hunting soon.
“We are seeing that increase in the population, so we are talking about putting out more licenses in this valley to help manage the population,” Tesch said.
Right now, one hunter each year gets the chance to shoot a bull moose in the Roaring Fork River valley, in Game Management Unit 43, which includes lands from Aspen to Glenwood Springs on the southeast side of Colorado 82. There is no moose hunting permitted on the other side of the highway, in places such as Fryingpan River Valley, but Tesch said that is likely to change soon.
So, as more moose become comfortable in their new homes, they’ll also find more hunters waiting for the chance to mount them on the walls of their homes.
Editor's Note: This story was produced in collaboration with Aspen Journalism.