Of Moose and Men: A Conversation with Biologist and Moose Expert Dr. Victor Van Ballenberghe
Victor Van Ballenberghe was born and raised in upstate New York, eventually majoring in biology at the State University of New York, Oneonta. Van Ballenberghe received his masters and doctorate degrees at the University of Minnesota. For his masters, he studied moose; for his PhD dissertation, he studied wolves. Van Ballenberghe got a job with U.S. Fish and Game in Alaska in 1974, studying both moose and wolves, and has lived in that state ever since. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service, beginning in 1980, for 20 years. He “retired” in 2000 — although ever since, he’s been doing independent research on moose (and sometimes wolves), along with consulting and writing. He plans to continue his research on moose for the rest of his life. Van Ballenberghe is also the author of In the Company of Moose, which can be purchased on Amazon. Our phone interview took place on July 25 and 26.
Friends of Animals: You’re a trained wildlife biologist. What led to your passion for moose in particular?
Van Ballenberghe: I started studying moose in the fall of 1967. I was offered a research project as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, which focused on the moose in north eastern Minnesota. That was for my masters degree. That’s where it all began. I’ve been studying them ever since.
You’ve written a book, In the Company of Moose, that culminates your entire body of work.
I wanted to write about my experiences as a biologist — including descriptions of some of the interesting research — trying to do that in a readable way. I wanted to write the stories of the individual moose I studied, sometimes for periods as long as 14 or 15 years. Some of those moose have some interesting stories to tell.
I also wanted to publish some of the photos I have taken over the years. I have amassed quite a collection; it took me 12 years to assemble the collage I used in the book.
Can you tell us about some of the scientific studies you conducted? What were you focusing on?
We’ve done a wide range of studies, some relating to habitat and how moose use that habitat; we tried to understand their habitat requirements. We also studied population dynamics, how moose populations rose and fell over time, and what factors were responsible for the ups and downs. We studied survival and mortality and tried to piece together a history of individual populations. And a major area was moose behavior — particularly behavior during the mating, or “rutting,” season. We spent a lot of hours out in the field directly observing what they did, recording descriptions of what they did, trying to understand the significance.
For those of us who don’t live among moose, what makes them fascinating?
They thrive in some really difficult places, ranging from coniferous forests to higher-elevation, mountainous sites, to river valleys on the north slopes of Alaska, where there’s not a great deal of cover. Studying their adaptations to such harsh environments, to me, is fascinating. They’re very large animals and they require a large amount of food; they spend a lot of time acquiring that food and energy. They have to deal with harsh environments and predators like wolves and grizzly bears; just learning how they cope with all of that is interesting.
Moose are hunted by grizzlies and wolves — but surely they’re formidable at defending themselves?
Moose have evolved with numerous ways to cope; they’re especially good at avoiding and evading because their hearing and other senses are excellent. They’re fast runners and agile. They can outrun predators. If they have to physically defend themselves, they typically back up to a tree and kick with their front feet. It’s difficult for a bear or a wolf to defeat them. They can kill or seriously injure wolves and bears with their hooves.
Older moose and calves are most vulnerable. Moose in their prime — aged two to nine—are practically immune to predation.
What does a moose diet consist of?
They’re herbivores who eat hundreds of different species of plants, ranging from aquatic plants (some of their favorites) to low-growing herbaceous plants to woody plants. In one of my study areas in Denali National Park, over 90% of the diet, both summer and winter, was woody plants. Woody plants are shrubs and small trees; they eat the leaves and twigs.
Where else do they live?
They live in northern areas; they don’t tolerate warm weather very well. Their distribution is limited to places like Maine, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — and, of course, Alaska. The farthest south they go is the mountains of Utah, but that’s only because of the high elevations. Canada has many moose — in every province.
You live in Alaska. Moose are everywhere and residents must interact closely with them. What’s that like?
I live in Anchorage and there’s a population of moose that live here year round, with more of them coming into the settled parts of Anchorage during the wintertime. Several hundred are killed by vehicles and on railroads each year. Moose interact with people on foot and skis, too; every year in Anchorage there are incidents where people are injured by moose. Only two people have been killed in the last 25 years or so. They can be dangerous, for sure. There are ranges of reactions, but I think most people here understand the rules to stay safe.
Moose are often described as gentle animals who aren’t aggressive — no?
Moose are very calm animals. Some animals are constantly alert and active, constantly vigilant. Moose are very large and, as a result, they can’t afford to waste energy. Most of the time, they are gentle. When they are defending themselves or their young ones, they can be aggressive and frightening to be around.
Have you ever startled a moose?
Quite a few times, actually. The most risky situation is to be close to a cow with small calves. In my research there was one study when we were studying cows and calves, and I had to follow them on a daily basis. In the course of doing that, I startled a cow and had to flee — which means run as fast as you can. You stand your ground with a bear, but run from a moose. Usually, they will stop pursuing you.
Once, in the late spring when there was two feet of snow on the ground, I got too close, and a cow charged. I had to scramble out of snow shoes and hide behind some trees. It could have been terrible, but ended up OK.
What’s the mating season like for moose?
For 10 months of the year, they are totally preoccupied with feeding and resting. The rutting season usually occurs in September and October. Their behavior completely changes: the bulls are trying to court the cows and fend off rivals; the cows are soliciting the bulls.
That’s also the time of year you see males fighting with one another, I am assuming?
Yes, they do two things: sparring, which is practice fighting (which is common among bull moose and extends beyond the mating season), and actual fighting, which is dramatic as they are trying to hurt one another. These bulls are normally very slow, become agile and aggressive — it’s quite the transformation. Sometimes the injuries result in death.
What’s with the rutting pits that occur in mating season?
It’s related to scent marking, which is common in mammals, from mice to moose and even larger animals. They are using the chemicals in their urine as a means of communication. A bull moose will dig a pit in the ground a foot long and a foot wide. Then he urinates in that pit and tries to splash himself with it — sometimes even laying down in it. The chemicals attract females — they’ll even wallow in the pits if they come upon one.
I’ve read that climate change is affecting moose populations.
Northern Minnesota is undergoing a population decline of moose. Climate change has a whole host of effects — not only through the deer population increase and the parasitic brain worm that they carry, but also through changes in plant distribution and changes in the tick population. There’s a very large tick that infests moose, more prevalent during warmer weather. Thousands of these ticks can be on an individual moose, draining their blood and affecting their coats. In some cases, it leads to their deaths. Climate change is definitely having an effect on moose and other species.
You’ve lived in Alaska since 1974. Is the hunting culture a challenge to a wildlife biologist?
Since 1980, most of my research has been in Denali National Park, where moose are protected from hunters. Prior to that, I did study moose in places they were hunted and it did make it more difficult to study individuals over a long period of time.
I know your book will answer this question in more detail, but can you share some of your most memorable moose stories with our readers?
Yes! There are two chapters of the book that deal with individual moose. In one case, I was able to follow the daughter of a moose I had followed.
One bull comes to my mind — a rather remarkable one — who I thought was an exceptional animal. Just like people, or any other animal, some are exceptional, some are mediocre and some are subpar. This particular bull was remarkable for his success at reproducing; he was able to spread his genes. He was so good at fighting and defending himself. He was eventually killed by another bull, in his old age. I was able to watch him in his prime and then in his decline — and document his successes.