Many more moose: the local population has increased dramatically in 20 years

An estimated 30 moose call Steamboat Ski Resort home, creating the need for joint wildlife studies and increasing proactive management practices for skier and moose safety.
Steamboat Resort / Courtesy Photo

Seeing a moose in the Yampa Valley is no longer a rare event, as the population of large, long-legged animals in Routt County has increased sevenfold over the past 20 years.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife terrestrial biologist Eric Vannatta estimates Routt County’s moose population has grown from about 50 animals two decades ago to 350 now.

The local Shiras moose population is healthy and continues to grow as the animals travel and disperse to parts of the valley that provide good habitat, Vannatta said.

A ring-necked moose, part of a four-year Colorado Parks & Wildlife and partner study of 21 local moose, stops traffic in January 2018 along Amethyst Drive in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Archives

CPW officials consider the high moose numbers a great sign for northwest Colorado, as it represents a successful reintroduction story.

Routt County moose include generations of animals that gradually migrated south from the North Park area near Walden. According to CPW, Colorado wildlife managers transplanted 24 moose from Utah and Wyoming in 1978 and 1979 to North Park.

The growing number of local moose is evident at the Steamboat Resort, which Vannatta says is home to up to 30 moose.

Moose activity at the ski resort was tracked over a four-year study from 2017 to 2021 to help understand the animals’ seasonal movements. For the study, project partners CPW, the ski resort and the US Forest Service tracked 21 animals that were fitted with darts, collars and ear tags. GPS collars dropped off the moose remotely in October 2021.

“The moose study came about because of increased moose activity on the mountain and our concern about the potential risks and safety issues that could arise from skier-moose conflicts,” said Lance Miles, the ski resort’s project coordinator. “The first collaring program was a success and we look forward to the next phase of collaring.”

Missy Dressen, a USFS wildlife biologist for 23 years in Steamboat Springs, said the study showed, somewhat surprisingly, that when moose take up residence at the ski resort, the animals largely stay on square.

“We’re seeing a lot of moose moving into the ski area,” Dressen said.

Dressen said moose gravitate to swampy and riparian areas where they eat willows, young aspen, sarvisberry and chokecherry bushes.

“We find that some moose are really attracted to Buffalo Pass, Steamboat Ski Area and Rabbit Ears Pass because they are such wet habitats with groundwater and tons of willows,” Dressen said. “And they like dark wood areas.”

Vannatta studies digital maps of the range histories of ring-necked moose and found that movements are often concentrated around BC Ski Way, Why Not, and trees near Vagabond and Bashor in the ski resort, as well as on Forest Service land and grassland extending southwest from the resort.

Moose stay lower on the ski hill during calving season from May to mid-June and disperse further towards town as plants bloom and bloom in the summer. Residents should be aware that moose are often found in the Fish Creek Falls, Uranium Mine Trail, Burgess Creek and Rotary Park areas, Vannatta said.

Moose hangs out in the open space in November 2021 off Anglers Drive in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot and Today

The two biologists are complementary to the ski resort’s efforts with the study and its proactive actions to close trails due to moose when necessary. They say a moose study with GPS tracking collars conducted at a ski resort is rare.

To minimize conflict, the ski resort has deployed signage, while undertaking visitor education and best management practices. Moose tend to hang out near green runs, which are also popular with beginner and young skiers, said Vannatta, who earned a master’s degree in wildlife biology.

Dressen said wildfire fuel reduction and wildlife habitat improvement projects in the Thunderhead, Burgess Creek and Sundown areas of the ski resort have improved moose habitat where trees killed by the beetles were removed and young shrubby plants returned.

“I’m really proud of the ski resort’s efforts to restore habitat and help us manage moose,” Dressen said.

The three organizations will partner again for a small study to catch 10 moose at the ski resort this fall after hunting season. As part of CPW’s overall hunting management policy, the ski resort boundaries are included in lands permitted for moose hunting, the biologists noted.

Vannatta said one of the main reasons for continuing the study is to find out how the moose will respond to disturbance from new construction projects, tree removal and ski resort expansion.

Biologists hope community members will continue to learn as much as possible about reducing conflict between humans and moose, as the animals – which can weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds and reach 6 feet at the shoulders – will continue to grow in population and breadth in the Yampa Valley.

“We’re really well positioned here to be proactive rather than reactive,” Vannatta said.