I used to think moose were uncommon in Yellowstone. The first few times I visited the park (20-30 years ago) I didn’t see any at all. Some of that, I’ve since learned, is because Yellowstone’s moose tend to hang out in the northeast corner of the park, away from popular attractions like Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls. If you stick to Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, your odds of seeing a moose aren’t great.
In the winter, however, most of the Grand Loop is closed, and the only stretch of road that’s open to regular traffic runs right through Yellowstone’s prime moose territory, from Lamar Valley all the way to the park’s northeast entrance (and beyond). When I spent a year photographing Yellowstone in 2017/18, I regularly spotted moose in that area, especially in the winter.
But this winter feels different, especially lately. Moose seem to be everywhere. Often the number of moose I’ve seen at Round Prairie has reached double digits. One morning in early December I stopped at Round Prairie to watch a group of four large bull moose grazing on willows. I’d never seen that many bulls hanging out together.
The amazing moose show hasn’t been confined to Yellowstone. A few days after seeing the four bull moose at Round Prairie I ran into a group of three different bull moose just across the creek from our home in Silver Gate. Marie and I and our neighbors Jill and Greg watched them graze and play-fight for over an hour. It was the first time I’d ever been able to photograph three bull moose locking antlers simultaneously. There’s something particularly distinctive and enjoyable about the sound of moose antlers click-clacking against each other.
Later that day the three bull moose crossed the creek into our yard. I scrambled through deep snow to try and get a shot of them with our cabin in the background.
Pretty quickly the three moose buddies left our yard and continued on past Jill and Greg’s place.
People who have many more years of Yellowstone experience than I do have confirmed that the moose population seems to be much healthier these days. One photographer told me that a decade ago it was thrilling to find a young bull moose with tiny antlers. Encountering a group of four big bulls sporting massive paddles would have been inconceivable.
From what I’ve read, Yellowstone’s moose population dropped dramatically after the 1988 wildfires, which burned a significant percentage of their food sources. Apparently the number of moose in Yellowstone dropped from about 1,000 in the 1970s to fewer than 200 post-fire. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, but my understanding is that their net impact on the moose population is uncertain (wolves do sometimes prey on moose but not often, and the presence of wolves may be changing the grazing behavior of elk in a way that improves moose habitat).
So I’m wondering if the moose population in Yellowstone is beginning to rebound as the forest gradually recovers from the 1988 fires. If anyone has better insight on the underlying dynamics I’d love to learn more. Regardless, It’s really fun to experience the wave of moose activity that’s washing over the northeast corner of the park this winter.