Northwest Colorado man escapes tense moose encounter while hiking in Zirkel Wilderness
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs resident Jeff Keeler didn’t quite expect the company he ran into on the trail last week.
He had hiked up with his dog Zoe to Three Island Lakes in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. The pair was returning to the trailhead when Keeler looked up and saw a bull moose standing about 15 yards away from him on the path.
It took him a second to process the massive animal. He’d run into a group of hunters earlier in the day, and it took a second to register that it wasn’t a hunter’s horse. He got Zoe’s attention and instructed her to sit.
“We just looked at each other, the moose and I, and he didn’t do anything, and I didn’t do anything.” Keeler said. “I just knew this probably wasn’t the best situation.”
He stepped off the trail onto the slope above it and positioned himself so he and Zoe were behind an aspen tree. He then watched as the moose stepped off-trail in the opposite direction and continued parallel to the trail back the way they’d come from.
Keeler walked out of the woods unharmed and with a good story, but he knows he’s lucky that Zoe minded well and the moose didn’t react to their presence.
While it’s not uncommon to encounter wildlife on Routt County’s trails, it’s always important to keep a safe distance and remain aware of your surroundings.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Public Information Officer Mike Porras recommends using this rule of thumb: If you hold your hand out at arm’s length, an animal is a safe distance away if its body can be completely hidden by your thumb. With moose, you should be even farther away than that, he said.
Porras said that while Parks and Wildlife encourages watching wildlife, the agency also “encourages bringing along a pair of binoculars or spotting scope and certainly keeping your distance.”
Watch out for these signs, which indicate you are too close to a moose, and it might become aggressive:
- Raised hackles (the hairs on its neck)
- Ears pinned back
- Lowered head
- Swaying back and forth; snorting and licking its snout
If a moose charges you:
- Run away as fast as possible.
- Get behind a large tree, rock or other object.
- If you are knocked down, get up quickly.
- If injured, seek immediate medical attention.
- Report the incident to Colorado Parks and Wildlife as soon as possible.
For more information and to learn more about living and recreating with wildlife, visit the local Parks and Wildlife office at 925 Weiss Drive or cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/LivingwithWildlife.aspx.
Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife
“In addition to the rule of thumb, if the animal changes its behavior in any way because of your presence, you are too close,” he said.
While Keeler made the right decision to move out of the way and get behind a tree, keeping Zoe on a leash would have been a safer bet. Porras said the agency strongly recommends keeping dogs on leash when recreating in the backcountry. Moose see dogs as predators and can become very aggressive toward them.
“What ends up happening is that moose will chase the dog, the dog runs back to the owner, (the dog is) able to keep running, but the owner can’t get away,” Porras said. “In many cases, over the last decade or so, the vast majority of the incidents where people have been injured by a moose, it’s been precipitated by a dog either on or off leash.
“We strongly recommend that people keep their dogs on a leash and under control,” Porras explained. “(Off-leash dogs) can lead to a very bad situation not only for the person — and the dog, certainly — but it also can end up in a situation where the moose might have to be put down, depending on the circumstances.”
Moose, in particular, are not skittish of people, Porras said. While an elk or a deer is usually spooked by the appearance of a human, moose aren’t. This can create a false sense of security that leads people to approach moose at an unsafe distance.
That also means that you should never try to “shoo away” a moose. You’ll just irritate a 5-foot tall, 800-pound creature that’s probably already put on edge by your presence.
The best thing to do when you encounter one is to position a car, tree, rock or another large object between you and the moose and give it time to move on from the area on its own, Porras said. If the moose isn’t budging, you should find an alternate route.
Moose, elk and deer are currently in rut, which means males are looking for a mate. With more testosterone in their bodies, male ungulates might be more defensive of their territory and more aggressive.
What’s far more dangerous in the case of moose are females with calves, who will become defensive of their young, Porras said.
“We want people to understand when you create a situation in which an animal has either injured you or has shown aggression towards you, and it’s been precipitated by your actions, in many cases, it’s the animal that will suffer the consequences,” he said. “Nobody wants to be responsible for that. … If you live in Colorado, if you recreate in Colorado, it is imperative, and it is your responsibility to learn how to coexist with wildlife.”