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'They've adapted': Moose are migrating to the Alberta prairies

Research shows the large animals are trading tree cover for abundant food on Alberta and Saskatchewan farms

A moose standing by grain bins in rural Saskatchewan.

Larry Richter / Supplied

A moose standing by grain bins in rural Saskatchewan.

Moose are running loose on the prairies, and nobody is quite sure what to do about it.

New research suggests moose are migrating to flatlands across Alberta and Saskatchewan and eating farmers’ crops.  

Biologist Chris Fisher, who is working on a project in southeast Alberta, said he’s been surprised to spot the 1,500-pound animals in areas he’s never seen them before, away from tree cover where they "stick out like a sore hoof."

When he saw one scurrying for cover last week, he had to stop and take a photo.

“It just kept on chugging, chugging, kicking up snow, until it found a small patch of willow the size of my truck,” Fisher said.

“It just started feasting on this willow and standing beside it for hours and hours, as if this little clump of trees would mask this giant form on a barren landscape and conceal it from almost an embarrassing situation of being out of place.”

Moose are generally known to live in the boreal forest and aspen parkland.

Fisher suspects they’re moving to the prairies for food in the winter, where they can find wheat and grains that provide better nourishment than the twigs they feast on in barren winter forests.

“The spilled wheat and canola in these croplands provides like a Michelin five-star experience for these moose who are overwintering in these areas. It provides a lot more energy to them than their splinter-wood diet of dried-out branches, which really provides them no nourishment at all,” Fisher said.

“During the wintertime, basically, they are in a negative energy balance and they’re just slowly starving as the winter proceeds.”

He said moose are sometimes called “swamp donkeys” because they tend to reside around wetlands, which are also scarce on the prairies.

But according to Ryan Brook, a professor and wildlife researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, increasing rainfall in Saskatchewan over the last decade has created small “pothole wetlands” where moose can graze on vegetation and cool off in the summer.

Brook, who is leading the Saskatchewan Farmland Moose Project, said a lack of predators on the prairies has contributed to their growing migration, as well as new farming practices with fewer people tending to bigger farms.

A moose on the Saskatchewan prairies. While moose migrating to the prairies might be a good thing for hunters, it also has serious implications for farmers and motorists.

Supplied/Ryan Brook

A moose on the Saskatchewan prairies. While moose migrating to the prairies might be a good thing for hunters, it also has serious implications for farmers and motorists.

“We’ve talked to producers that farm land that used to have 40 people or 50 people living on that same area, and now it’s a family of four,” he said.

“Now moose in these farmland areas may be disturbed by farming activities only a handful of times a year.”

Canola is one of Alberta’s most popular crops and is the top food choice for moose, Brook said.

While there are no hard numbers on farmland moose populations, his research team has found the animals are reproducing, and their young have a much higher survival rates than they would in the boreal forest where they could be snatched up by bears or wolves.

The research has also noted an increase in crop damage through the prairies.

“Five years ago, I don’t think I would have thought that moose were much of a major contributor," Brook said. "I certainly hadn’t thought of them as eating agricultural crops, but they definitely do. They’ve adapted.”

While crop damage claims are compensated, he said, smashed fences are not – and that's been a point of frustration for some farmers.

“Deer tend to jump fences. Moose often go through fences,” Brook said.

He added that vehicle-moose collisions are another concern for humans living on and driving through the prairies.

“We definitely see much more severe impact – people having severe injuries, being paralyzed, and people being killed,” Brook said.
“That’s arguably the No. 1 issue related to these moose expanding in farmland areas, especially in areas where historically people didn’t have to worry about moose collisions.”

On the other hand, he said, many hunters on the prairies are rejoicing over the abundance of game.

Brook said the expansion of the moose population is a complex situation with a lot of variables, but he believes humans can find some common ground to manage the issue.

“One of the unknowns is, what is the target? What do we want here?” he said.

“We expect that there will be some pressure to keep those populations at moderate to low levels, given the impact that they have.”

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