Federal scientists take to the skies for aerial moose research
How many moose are in Rocky Mountain National Park? Where do they go and from where do they come? What do their seasonal migration patterns look like and what is the extent of their annual range?
These questions may seem simple enough, but finding the answers is a much more difficult task. That is why federal officials have turned to eyes in the sky to help illuminate these surprisingly hard questions.
Over the past decade, Rocky has seen a significant increase in the number of moose living in the park, but so far park officials have had to rely largely on anecdotal information to gauge the population growth.
“Ten years ago, it would have been the talk of the town to see a moose on the east side of the park,” said Hanem Abouelezz, a landscape ecologist. “Now, depending on the time of year, you can see multiple moose in one day.”
Since 2017, researchers at Rocky have been gathering data on moose populations, and their work has continued this summer with the use of aerial reconnaissance.
Abouelezz leads Rocky’s ongoing moose research project.
So far she and other park employees have focused on tracking and monitoring moose within the park. They have performed this research primarily by using GPS tracking collars, but starting this summer, park biologists began conducting aerial surveys utilizing infrared and high definition cameras to get a better idea of the park’s overall moose population, as well the animals’ habitat and range.
Aerial moose surveys were conducted from July 22-26 at Rocky with fixed-wing aircraft flights beginning at first light. Aboard each flight was a pilot and two biologists, who watched monitors inside the planes showing the images from below.
Abouelezz noted that Rocky has done significant aerial surveys for elk in pervious years, but this is the first time moose have been the focus of the flights.
According to Abouelezz, the technology used and nature of the aerial surveys allow researchers to better detect the large ungulates, which can be surprisingly elusive in the park’s terrain.
“Moose are very challenging to count in a way that you can model estimates of their population size,” Abouelezz said. “It is hard to detect them in thick cover, steep drainages or wetlands. Moose tend to habitat those places.”
While looking for moose in the park, researchers map out areas they believe make suitable for moose habitat and areas they deem unsuitable. The researchers take special care to search habitat they deem unsuitable for moose to ensure their predictions are correct.
“We have to look at both where we think they are and where we think they won’t be,” Abouelezz said. “If we find a bunch of moose where we did not expect to find them, then we really learn something important.”
The aerial surveys provide additional data beyond that derived from Rocky’s existing moose collaring efforts. Abouelezz noted that park staff collared four additional bull moose this spring and plan to collar more moose on the park’s west side in the near future.
Collaring operations take significantly more time than aerial surveys do and produce different data, giving a more granular view of the movements of individual moose.
During moose collaring operations, park employees trek out into the park in search of moose. Once one is located, park staff then shoot the moose with a tranquilizer dart from close range.
It then takes roughly 8-12 minutes for the drugs to take effect. Depending upon the level of research Abouelezz and others have planned for an individual moose, they may simply attach a collar to the animal and bring it out of the tranquilized state or they could spend as much as 45 minutes gathering blood, hair and fecal samples, as well as conducting tick counts and a biopsy of rectal tissue.
There are currently 22 moose wearing collars within Rocky’s boundaries, including the four bulls collared this spring.
While the project continues to move ahead, Abouelezz cautioned that completing the work would be a “long slog.” She hopes to have preliminary results available in 2021 but said the data provided will become more accurate as research spreads across multiple years.
“The more years of data you have, the more confident you can be,” Abouelezz said.
According to Abouelezz, the initial data indicates moose within the park have a small home range and live mostly within the park’s boundaries. Unlike the park’s elk, which tend to summer in the Kawuneeche Valley, move to Estes Park during the fall rut and then ride out winters at lower elevations near Loveland, moose remain in the park during winter, living in sub-alpine regions while browsing on fir.
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