Four moose have died in car collisions since last summer within three miles of Ross MacIntyre’s house near Jackson.
It might not sound like much, but in a herd that numbers around 450, individuals matter.
On one hand, car collisions with moose aren’t exactly a surprise. Some of the highest densities of moose in Wyoming pick their way through Jackson’s river bottoms and subdivisions, and travel back and forth over Highway 22, the busiest stretch of two-lane road in the state.
But what it means is a surprise. Without help, the Jackson area – which includes a town called Moose – may one day run out of moose.
“We know that moose in general, in this area, are struggling from things like climate change, warming temperatures, heat stress, increased numbers of predators on the landscape, new diseases coming on the scene and parasites,” said Aly Courtemanch, wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Jackson.
“There’s a number of those factors, but when you add on vehicle collisions and habitat taken away by human development, we’re starting to wonder if this moose population living in and among people and homes is sustainable or not.”
The problem is serious enough that Game and Fish, the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Teton County Engineering, nonprofits and nearby landowners formed a working group to look for solutions that include intensive study and highway underpasses.
“To see so many killed in such a small stretch is frustrating,” MacIntyre said. “A week ago, I was driving back from Jackson late at night and we had to swerve to avoid a moose that stepped out onto the road in a dark stretch, and 20 yards past that we passed a deer that had been hit. It’s a constant occurrence in the area.”
Moose haven’t historically lived in Wyoming. But unlike pheasants or turkeys that were brought here for hunting, or mountain goats that were introduced into Idaho and wandered into the Cowboy State, moose naturally migrated south into Teton County in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
They’re mostly a northern species, prolific in places like Canada and Alaska. Wyoming is the southern end of their range, and it has largely worked for the long-legged beasts. They were introduced into the Bighorn Mountains and Snowy Range and those newer populations seem to be succeeding.
What’s going on in Jackson, as one of the oldest herds in the state, is a complex network of issues, Courtemanch said.
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Moose in the region are divided into two herds, the Sublette and Jackson herds – and together they account for a large portion of Wyoming’s moose.
The Sublette herd is doing relatively well. The Jackson herd, however, has been declining for years.
Despite all of the interest from locals and tourists alike in the creatures that strip leaves off of trees and even give birth in people’s backyards, Game and Fish has never studied the population in and around Jackson. As a result, in March, Courtemanch and other biologists will begin trapping and collaring area moose to document their physical condition and, most importantly, track their movements.
Courtemanch wants to know exactly how many moose live in the area and where they move between seasons. WYDOT can then use the information to develop plans for underpasses and fencing.
In May, Teton County Engineering finalized a master plan for roadways in the county. They looked at crash and carcass reports and mapping data. The area near the Snake River Bridge and the intersection of highways 22 and 390 was listed as the most critical issue for wildlife vehicle collisions.
“With moose, they’re a larger animal and a higher value animal because there’s fewer of them around,” said Amy Ramage, Teton County Engineering Manager. “The other part is, if you hit a moose with a vehicle it’s a significant accident. It turns into a lot of dollars from both a human side and the biological conservation side of losing that animal. There’s also some part of it that’s lost to wildlife viewing and that’s pretty important around here.”
The results timed well with WYDOT’s Snake River Bridge project slated for 2023. The bridge replacement is a top priority for WYDOT in the state, said Keith Compton, district 3 engineer with WYDOT. Working on it now allows engineers and biologists to consider options for wildlife underpasses.
“It is the busiest 2-lane highway in the state,” Compton said. “We have one of the busiest stretches of I-80 between here and Green River, and Highway 22 will carry more traffic during peak tourism.”
Underpasses are part of the plan to save not only moose but also roaming elk, deer and other small mammals, said Ramage. The master plan has options, calling for, at most, four underpasses in addition to the bridge. It will also require fencing to keep wildlife off the road and funneled to the underpasses.
The work is expensive, said Chris Colligan, wildlife program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, but hitting a moose costs, on average, about $30,000. The Yellowstone Coalition and other nonprofits are working on ways to pay for the underpass construction.
And without help, Courtemanch said, the iconic moose populations could one day fade back north.