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Moose moved into the White River National Forest on their own, migrating from other areas.
Now, with transplants from Utah, the Division of Wildlife is adding to the local numbers in hopes of establishing a bigger population in Rio Blanco County.
Nineteen moose were transferred last week from near Ogden, Utah, to locations upriver, around South Fork, Marvine Creek, North Fork and Miller Creek.
“We hadn’t had moose up here in a hell of a long time,” said Bill de Vergie, area wildlife manager for the DOW. “But we’ve had about eight, 10 or 12 moose move in on their own, based on sightings. We even had one cow that had twins last summer, so we know we had reproduction.
“Now that we have this small population showing up, and we have the capacity to sustain them, we talked to landowners and everybody is on board,” de Vergie said. “So we decided to augment the population and get it established.”
How did moose show up in Rio Blanco County in the first place?
“We’ve just got more moose in the state now,” de Vergie said. “Sometimes (the moose) just go searching for new places. When you do a transplant, some of them take off and wander. We started a transplant three or four years ago on Grand Mesa (National Forest), and some of them came over the Flat Tops (Wilderness Area), dropped down into the White River Basin and stayed.”
A habitat assessment by the DOW showed the area has the capacity to sustain a moose population of 200 to 250 or more, de Vergie said.
“What we’re going to try to do is manage the population at a lower level than that, probably about 100,” de Vergie said. “We want to start conservatively. If over time, we feel we can hold more, we’ll add to that number. It will take a few years to even get to that number.”
Asked if the DOW would do more moose transplants to Rio Blanco County, de Vergie said it would depend on how the current population fares.
“Even if we don’t add anymore moose, this might be enough to get us going,” he said. “It will also depend on budgeting and if Utah needs to get rid of some more (moose).”
De Vergie said moose were moving into newly developed urban areas of Utah, which used to be traditional moose habitat.
“They have had an overpopulation,” de Vergie said. “The moose are doing well, but what they are having problems with, they (the moose) have moved down into this urban area, and they are ending up in subdivisions and community areas.”
Jeff Madison, natural resources specialist for Rio Blanco County, spent 31 years with the DOW. He was part of the initial effort to transplant moose to Colorado.
“It started in earnest about five years ago,” Madison said. “I was involved with the Grand Mesa moose transplant, and before that the Creede moose transplant. We’ve always had a few moose in the area, but we never reached a threshold of breeding potential, so we could have a viable population. Most of them are a transient population, but we are seeing more sightings of moose come through.”
Madison thinks Rio Blanco County can sustain a moose population.
“There’s a lot of good moose habitat out here,” Madison said. “Willows is a primary food source. It’s the stuff you see in the bottom of all of the draws around here.”
Generally, there has been support from landowners for transplanting moose here.
“For the most part, there’s been real good acceptance,” Madison said. “There’s been a little bit of grumbling.”
Madison believes, before long, moose will be widely accepted around these parts.
“That’s been the pattern, where we’ve done transplants before. The local population really adopts these (animals),” Madison said. “I’m guessing John Kobald will be doing a moose statue someday.”
Kobald, a local artist, was commissioned last year by the Meeker Chamber of Commerce to design a bronze statue of a mountain lion, symbolic of the area. The statue stands at the corner of Fifth and Market.
Madison took time off from his duties with the county to assist with last week’s moose transplant. Of the 19 moose transported here, there were 11 adult cows, four adult bulls and four calves (two bulls and two cows).
All of the adult cows were fitted with radio collars, which can be tracked by satellite, while the adult bulls and the calves were tagged with ear transmitters.
“We’ll be able to follow them,” de Vergie added. “We’ll learn a lot about where they’re going, where they’re feeding. Moose, traditionally, are very isolated. They travel in small groups. They don’t bunch up, like elk or deer. That’s why it’s kind of difficult to guess how many you have.”
As the DOW tries to build up the moose population, Madison said he hoped hunters would be on the lookout, come next hunting season.
“We’ve had accidental kills, where (hunters) mistake them for elk,” Madison said. “They need to be careful what they’re looking at before they pull the trigger. That’s the thing that has suppressed the population. If you have only 10 moose in the area, and you’re losing three or four to accidental kills, that’s significant.”
De Vergie is hoping the moose population in Rio Blanco County will be built up and sustained over the next several years, to the point where they can be hunted legally.
“We eventually hope to have a (hunting) season here,” de Vergie said. “The Grand Mesa is starting its first season this next year, and that’s after four years (since moose were released into the area). So, with any luck in the not too distant future, say four to five years, we’ll start hunting on a very limited basis.”