Moose are showing up this summer at one of Aspen’s most popular destinations; the Maroon Bells. Already there have been reports of moose charging hikers and the Forest Service closed the trails there for a day this week. The trails have reopened but rangers are warning visitors to be aware of the potential danger. As Aspen Public Radio’s Dorothy Atkins explains they are also considering other options.
The Forest Service has a message for visitors and locals alike: Beware of moose. This year, more moose are living in the area known as the Maroon Creek drainage system — especially, it seems, along the popular hiking trails at the base of the Maroon Bells.
“People need to know that in our area moose are a new phenomenon.”
That's Phil Nyland, a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service.
“It's a new addition to our culture it's a wonderful addition. But with that addition comes a need for awareness.”
With more moose in the area, it's likely people will encounter them and that's not necessarily a good thing. In just the past two weeks Nyland says there have been multiple instances where moose have charged visitors in the Maroon Bells area.
“With their big size and their unpredictable behavior there's a danger.”
In May, two women were hospitalized after a moose attacked them while walking their dogs in Black Hawk. One woman came out of the encounter with four broken ribs, staples in the back of her head and fifteen stitches in her leg.
“The injuries they sustained are going to change their life from now on. It's akin to being in a car crash.”
A bull moose can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds. They are the largest of the ungulate, or deer, family and they have the largest antlers of the group. Moose are particularly agitated by dogs, which, like wolves are the moose's natural predator.
“Moose can travel 35 miles an hour and they can get up to speed in just a few footsteps. They can certainly do a lot of damage, to a human or a dog.”
On a recent morning at the entrance to the Maroon Bells Wilderness area a ranger stood at the scenic loop's trail head. This spot gets heavy tourist traffic; visitors in bright clothing with cameras at the ready. Moose might make a good photograph but they won’t always sit still for the camera.
“I've seen two bulls yesterday and a cow and calf yesterday. Two bulls were at the lake and the cow and calf were in the meadows. They were grazing. We were on watch all day telling people. If we weren't there to warn them I'm not sure what we would do.”
One ranger stopped a group of three who had their dog off leash.
“It's very, very critical that the dog stay on leash, because they actually prompt the dog to charge people. This is a warning, next time it'll be a 125 dollar ticket if we see the dog off the leash.”
Up, past the trail head, I come across what could be a sitting target for an angry moose. An artist competing in the Aspen Plein Air competition has set up an easel in front of the lake. He is less agile than a hiker on the trail.
“Have you heard about the moose?”
“I have, quite a bit actually. One of my fellow painters came up here a couple days ago and had a close encounter with one and one of the park rangers warned her to continue moving because of the danger of being charged at. I was like, 'Oh I want to experience that.'”
“That doesn't deter you? You still want to get close?”
“I've never seen one. I've gotta see one. In the past week I've seen my first mountain, I've seen my first elk and I want to see my first moose.”
Not everyone visiting the Bells is as excited by the idea of getting up close to a horse-size deer.
“Have you guys heard about the moose in the area?”
“What would you do if you saw a moose?”
“I don't know.”
“Back away slowly. If he charges, you run.”
“Hopefully we don't run into them. We'll definitely walk the other way.”
“I hope we don't see them actually.”
Wildlife biologist Phil Nyland says if a moose raises the hair on the back of their neck... and then lock eyes with you... you're too close. It's best, he cautions, to observe from a distance.
“If you need binoculars, you're pretty safe, you have time to react.”
Because of the number of moose encounters this summer, Forest Service officials are now considering a new management plan for the area. Created in conjunction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and local government officials it might include more restrictions on trails. Officials haven't figured out specifics of the plan yet, but they know more outreach is needed.