Moose in Yellowstone are one of four subspecies of moose (Alces alces shirasi) in North America, and are found in forested areas and willow flats from southeastern British Columbia to northern Colorado. They are better adapted to survival in deep snow than other ungulates in Greater Yellowstone. Except during the rut, moose are usually found alone or in small family groups. This behavior, and their use of habitat where they are often well concealed, impedes accurate estimates of population size and distribution.
Number in Yellowstone
Where to See
Behavior and Size
Moose are the largest members of the deer family in Yellowstone. Both sexes have long legs that enable them to wade into rivers and through deep snow, to swim, and to run fast. Despite its size, a moose can slip through the woods without a sound. Moose, especially cows with calves, are unpredictable and have chased people in the park.
Both sexes are dark brown, often with tan legs and muzzle. Bulls can be distinguished from cows by their antlers. Adults of both sexes have “bells”—a pendulous dewlap of skin and hair that dangles from the throat and has no known function.
In summer, moose eat aquatic plants like water lilies, duckweed, and burweed. But the principle staples of the moose diet are the leaves and twigs of the willow, followed by other woody browse species such as gooseberry and buffaloberry. An adult moose consumes approximately 10–12 pounds of food per day in the winter and approximately 22–26 pounds of food per day in the summer.
Some moose that summer in the park migrate in winter to lower elevations west and south of Yellowstone where willow remains exposed above the snow. But many moose move to higher elevations (as high as 8,500 feet) to winter in mature stands of subalpine fir and Douglas-fir.
Moose are solitary creatures for most of the year, except during the mating season or rut. During the rut, both bulls and cows are vocal: the cows may be heard grunting in search of a mate, and bulls challenge one another with low croaks before clashing with their antlers. The weaker animal usually gives up before any serious damage is done; occasionally the opponent’s antlers inflict a mortal wound.
Bulls usually shed their antlers in late November or December, although young bulls may retain their antlers as late as March. Shedding their heavy antlers helps them conserve energy and promotes easier winter survival. In April or May, bulls begin to grow new antlers. Small bumps on each side of the forehead start to swell, then enlarge until they are knobs covered with a black fuzz (called velvet) and fed by blood that flows through a network of veins. Finally the knobs change into antlers and grow until August. The antlers are flat and palmate (shaped like a hand). Yearlings grow six to eight inch spikes; prime adult bulls usually grow the largest antlers—as wide as five feet from tip to tip. When the antler reach their full size, the bull rubs and polishes his antlers on small trees in preparation for the rut.
Cows are pregnant through the winter; gestation is approximately eight months. When ready to give birth, the cow drives off any previous year’s offspring that may have wintered with her and seeks out a thicket in which to give birth.
Moose appear to have been scarce in Yellowstone until the latter half of the 1800s and in Jackson Hole until early in the 1900s. Predator control programs, forest fire suppression, and restrictions on moose hunting, contributed to their subsequent range expansion and increased numbers.
Forest fire suppression was probably the most important factor in their population increase because moose in Greater Yellowstone depend on mature spruce/fir forests for winter survival, unlike other North American moose populations that prefer shrubland that has been disturbed by events like fires.
Although some Rocky Mountain moose populations have continued to grow and spread into new habitat, those in Yellowstone have declined. Estimated at roughly 1,000 in the 1970s, by 1996 (the most recent data) the Yellowstone moose population declined to less than 200, with the northern range population down by at least 75% since the 1980s.
The moose population declined steeply following the fires of 1988 that burned mature fir forests. Many old moose died during the winter of 1988–89, probably as a combined result of the loss of good moose forage and a harsh winter. Unlike moose habitat elsewhere, northern Yellowstone does not have woody browse species that will come in quickly after a fire and extend above the snowpack to provide winter food.
Recent studies south of the park also suggest that fires on the summer ranges of migratory moose is partially responsible for the population decline. The population of moose that uses burned areas is declining more rapidly than the portion of the population that forages in unburned areas.
Predation of moose calves by bear and wolf populations may be continuing to limit population growth, but the low pregnancy rates of Greater Yellowstone moose suggest limits set by food availability. Longterm studies suggest that North American moose populations tend to erupt, crash, and then stabilize for a time at a density that depends on current ecological conditions and hunting pressure.
The State of Montana has noted a state-wide decline in moose populations. Moose hunting in the districts immediately north of Yellowstone has been limited to antlered bulls since 1996. Only 2 permits were issued in those districts in 2014. In 2012, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks began a study to assess and monitor the population across the state. Since winter 2013–2014, a northern Yellowstone National Park moose study has been underway with the main objective to estimate population abundance and vital statistics of northern Yellowstone moose using non-invasive methods.
Today, moose are most likely seen in the park’s southwestern corner and in the Soda Butte Creek, Pelican Creek, Lewis River, and Gallatin River drainages.
Barmore, W.J. Jr. 2003. Ecology of ungulates and their winter range in Northern Yellowstone National Park, Research and Synthesis 1962–1970. Yellowstone Center for Resources.
Becker, S.A. 2008. Habitat selection, condition, and survival of Shiras moose in northwest Wyoming In Department of Zoology and Physiology. M.S. University of Wyoming.
Tyers, D.B. and L.R. Irby. 1995. Shiras moose winter habitat use in the upper Yellowstone River Valley prior to and after the 1988 fires. Alces 31:35–43.
Tyers, D.B. 2008. Moose population and history on the northern Yellowstone winter range. Yellowstone Science 16.
Last updated: December 31, 2019