Moose, The West's Favorite Wild Animal

As I shut the door on my way to work last month, something caught my eye: Two moose, a cow and a calf, stood just 20 yards away, looking as though they hoped I hadn't noticed them—something hard to avoid doing, given their size. As I scrambled for my camera, they vanished into the forest in an instant.

It's at moments like this when we Westerners might wonder what the pioneers felt, travelling through a world that existed for millennia before the West began filling up with European settlers. That world is reduced to slivers today, mostly in parks and wilderness areas, where nature is deliberately set aside from the whims of man. Yet the moose in my Montana yard suggest a different story, one that emphasizes the human role in nature, its ever-changing state and our perceptions of what it ought to look like.

Modern-day travelers to the West know the moose well. The homely ungulate has become a beloved symbol of Western life, featured on everything from restaurant signs to hotel wallpaper. But early travelers to the region reported seeing few or no moose. Lewis and Clark, for example, never personally encountered a single moose; their journals mention only one sighting in 1806, by another member of the expedition who wounded a moose near the Blackfoot River in Montana.

How could the expedition, which traveled extensively through what would today be considered prime moose habitat, encounter just one moose?

Moose, it turns out, are newcomers to the American West; in many places; even homesteaders arrived first. Osborne Russell, who wrote down detailed observations of his travels through Wyoming in the 1830s, made no reference at all to moose. Early explorers to Yellowstone had a similar experience. Moose were not documented there until the late 1800s, and only after the turn of the century did they become established in Jackson Hole, now a modern moose-mecca.

Today, there are more moose in the West than perhaps at any point in history, and in general, we like it that way. When we spot one, we don't cringe as we would with most "exotic" species. Instead, in an effort to increase tourism and hunting, states have introduced moose to regions never before inhabited by the ungainly ungulates with their oversized hooves.

Wyoming is now home to more than 7,000 moose, thanks to feeding and relocation efforts by state wildlife officials. Introduced to Colorado's North Park in 1979, moose have now reached a population there of 1,600. As far south as Utah, where moose never roamed prior to European settlement, wildlife officials have supported their expansion.

In a way, though, adding moose to the wild amounts to a form of heresy. The traditional view of park ecology is that nature should be static and balanced. The influential Leopold Report, written by scientists in 1963 to guide wildlife management in national parks, concluded that parks should be maintained "in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man." Where this was not possible, "a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated." This certainly suggests that there should be no moose in Yellowstone.

That there are moose in Yellowstone these days tells us something about nature and our role in it: Nature is a human concept. Our values shape what it looks like, from earlier policies of predator control to the conservation efforts that attract moose to my yard today. Human action is part of the natural world, not the antithesis of it.

The real illusion is that there ever was a stable, primitive America. Today, ecologists find that nature is anything but constant. As biologist Daniel Botkin has argued, the natural world is not "a Kodachrome still-life," but rather "a moving picture show," ever-changing and, at times, completely random. When humans and their values are included, the result is perpetual change.

Conservationists are beginning to embrace such change. Recently, the National Park Service revisited the Leopold Report and jettisoned the notion of parks as "vignettes of primitive America." Parks are now to be managed for continuous change. Elsewhere, scientists are promoting the concept of the Anthropocene, a new geologic era in which humans and nature are inseparable. I think of the moose in my backyard as representing this new vision of conservation in the 21st century; it's one that rejects the notion of a pristine past, recognizes the importance of human values and embraces change.

This story first appeared in High Country News.