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Antlers and Wyoming’s Shiras Moose –

Velvet, Growth, & Characteristics.

Bull Moose shed their antlers sometime in mid-December to mid-January.

Antlers Sequence Strip

By April, they begin regrowing their antlers, and by late August the antlers will be fully formed. A thin layer of delicate “velvet” covers the growing antlers during the process. Deer and Elk go through the same velvet growth stages, though timing varies somewhat on all three. When Mother Nature triggers the response, the bulls begin stripping the velvet to reveal the season’s final product. Click the image above to see it much larger!

WashakieSequence1400

Most of the stripping can happen in 30-45 minutes or less! Of course, it can also take hours, depending on how motivated the particular bull is at the time. On some bulls, the velvet comes off in large sheets or strips, often dangling as bloody remnants. The event is not particularly “pretty”, but it is an important stage in the fall rut. I like to photograph it when I can, but it is not an easy assignment. For many, finding any Bull Moose at any time is victory enough. Finding one just beginning to strip adds more of a challenge and a whole new layer of difficulty. It seems to take a little luck, too! The first image above was taken at 7:07 pm on August 30, 2012 and the last image was taken at 8:04 pm. (These are small crops of distant shots.) Click this image to see it much larger!

If you’d like more specifics and statistics about our Shiras Moose sub species (Wyoming Moose), check out Facts about Wyoming’s Moose via Casper Star-Tribune Online.

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My Time With The Moose

2005 MooseI’m just a photographer with an art degree! To be more specific, I am NOT a biologist!  I’ve  been photographing the same moose families for eight or nine years along the Gros Ventre River, and over that period have amassed a fairly extensive collection of images I’d sure biologists would love to see. This page has just a few of them.

I never see park biologists out studying the area moose, but I suppose someone must be doing it somewhere? They would use DNA tests, tags and tracking collars. If the Teton moose are numbered, I’ve never heard the numbers (like Grizzly sow 610 or 399). Along the Gros Ventre, I’ve only ever seen a couple of small silver ear tags but no collars. This lack of visible researchers is perplexing knowing the population of Shiras Moose has been plummeting.

One of the major problems with trying to keep track of moose from year to year is the fact they lose their most important identifying elements—their antlers—in the winter. Once they drop them, most of the bulls look essentially the same. A few have cuts, scars, and scrapes, but those clues are much harder to see at a distance. Without antlers, cows are much more difficult to distinguish from year to year.

The winter photo with the bull moose under the snow covered Tetons was taken in December of 2005. It is one of the first images I have in digital form. I am sure I have additional photos taken with a film camera, but they aren’t dated. One site I found suggested moose live between 5 and 16 years in the wild. I like to think they live longer than five years, but possibly they are factoring in kills by wolves, vehicles, and other predators.

I have lots of photos from 2006 and each year since, taken mostly along the Gros Ventre river basin. There’s a very good chance I photographed some of the nice bulls of today as tiny calves eight to nine years ago. I’ve seen adolescent bulls grow into bulls capable of contending for, and winning the cows of the region. Some of the older big bulls I saw originally are dead or no longer coming around. I’ve been privileged to have been able to witness close to ten years in the cycle.

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Bull Elk Looking Back

Elk antlers seem to grow with a fairly consistent look from animal to animal. Over the years, they grow more points and become larger and thicker. I took the Winter Sleigh Ride on the National Elk Refuge last year. The driver pointed out an “a-typical” bull, but suggested the cows stayed away from him for the most part and would seldom mate with him. If so, it might explain why their is such of a conformity within the appearance of the antlers.

Variety

Moose antlers, on the other hand, are much more varied in size and shape, including the number and length of their tines. Washakie’s distinctive brow tines  set him apart from many of the other bulls. Another bull shows up near the end of the season with extremely broad antlers, while one of the recent dominant bulls along the Gros Ventre had narrow, but long “all business” antlers. More importantly, the shape of a bull’s antlers seems to be hard coded to that animal. They grow back essentially the same from year to year, so even before their antlers have fully formed, it becomes possible (for me anyway) to identify most of them.

GV Crossing

This is a nice bull I call “Custer”. Lacking a long bell or dewlap under his neck, he looks more like he has a goatee. Hence the name. I’ve photographed him since at least 2011, originally calling him Balboa (after Rocky Balboa…the contender). Several years ago, he showed up covered with bleached white spots on the lower half of his body. He’s had them since, but less this year than last year. In 2014, he developed a distinctive “drop tine” on the lower part of his right antler. Sure enough, he has one again for 2015 as seen in the photo above. Custer is now one of the bigger bulls and has begun to develop the big bull “swagger” and dominance. I can always count on Custer being one of the last bulls to strip his velvet each year. The point here is there can be patterns from year to year and some bulls are easy to identify because of their special markings and behavior.

Custer

This is the same moose from 2013. That was the first year he had the speckled white spots on his body. At that time, his antlers were respectable, but smaller than now and lacked the drop tine he has today.

Custer and Cow

Cow moose will sometimes hang close to a Bull, but they show very little interest in them.

Thrashing

On stripping day, bulls look for any branch capable of helping them remove the clinging velvet. I’ve heard and read they sometimes eat the velvet, but I’ve never personally observed the behavior.

Elvis with Bloody Velvet

The image above is one of a bull I called Elvis. In 2012, I was near him on the day he “should have stripped his velvet”. Some of his velvet was coming off during simply feeding on the willow shoots. I was primed and ready for good shooting that day, but instead, he bedded down. I found him later in the day and he still had a lot of velvet. Much of it was beginning to dry and get hard on the fresh antlers underneath.

Elvis and Washakie

Elvis managed to scrape off most of the outer edges of the dried velvet over the next few days, but the inner paddles could never be scraped off. Elvis and Washakie are seen here sizing each other up, though no battle ensued that day.

Elvis in Fall Back Water

Elvis’ distinctive rack made him easy to identify at a distance, even in silhouette form. During the 2012 fall season, the dried velvet made it easy to get a positive identification.

Elvis in 2010

Up until 2008, I probably photographed this moose and just considered him “one of the boys”. In 2008, I started paying more attention to him as he grew in size and his antlers developed. By 2010, he was a menacing looking animal. It was also the year he took down Gaston as the top bull.

Original Gaston

As I began photographing the Gros Ventre bulls in earnest in 2006 or so, this bull was the dominant Moose. His swaggering approach sent smaller bulls packing. My kids were younger at the time and the show “Beauty and the Beast” was still fresh in my mind. I started calling him Gaston (the Beast). He normally had about a dozen distinctive tines on each antler. His antlers wrapped around as a single unit on each side, unlike Washakie which had a gap between his main paddles and brow tines.

 Gaston's Antlers

Somewhere along the way, a large bull showed up with roughly 12 points on each antler. As I compare photos of the two (years later), it is apparent the new one was different, but I called him Gaston. Rangers have told me there have been several “Rosies” at the Roosevelt area of Yellowstone, and there have been lots of Lassies. My mistake was unintentional. Another photographer told me he didn’t think the two were the same, prompting me to review the images. There were plenty of similarities, but a couple of glaring differences, including the long dewlap on the second one.

One fall morning of 2010, I found Gaston(2) along with a group of cows, but for some reason, he was staying back in the shadows and letting Elvis go from cow to cow. Eventually I saw the problem. Gaston had a large gash in his side from an apparent battle. From that day forward, Gaston backed away if Elvis approached him. At that point, this Gaston(2)’s antlers had begun reducing in size from year to year. More than likely, he was past his prime, opening the door for Elvis.

Cody

Another big bull shows up from time to time along the Gros Ventre I’ve always called Cody. It would be easy to confuse him with some of the other bulls, including the second version of Gaston. He usually has a split at the back of his right antler.

Early Antlers

Calves are usually born in early June. By the rut season of their first year, they are still small. The young bulls usually have only a small nub where their antlers will someday grow. A yearling bull (one year plus four months) often has a spike and a two year bull often has a small ping-pong paddle sized antler on each side.

Young Bull

Young bulls like this one are difficult to identify from year to year. This one was probably three or four years old in 2012. After three years of additional growth, he’s probably becoming a distinctive looking sub-adult. At some point, their antlers begin to develop distinctive characteristics. At the time, we were calling this one Pretty Boy.

Thrashing

Starting the day they begin stripping their velvet and into late winter, bulls thrash their antlers into willows, cottonwoods, and about any kind of textured surface they can find. Young bulls regularly tear up camper’s tents. I’ve heard a few uninformed comments suggesting the thrashing is to indicate discontent with people being too close, but I don’t believe that statement for a second. They thrash to clean off the velvet initially. Without a mirror, they never really know when the job is complete. They also thrash to impress the cows, or to let the young ones know they should stay back. Occasionally, it backfires and draws the attention of a much larger bull. The photo above shows one of the bulls well into the fall with several broken tines and even the entire tip  broken off his paddle.

Moose Sparring

Typically, young moose spar with each other to prepare themselves for future battles. It is actually a common site. A large bull sometimes spars gently with one of the small bulls. I never saw too many of the big bulls sparring as seen above. There’s always evidence of actual fighting, like broken tines and deep scratches, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time to witness a “for keeps” fight. Bulls of any size continue to spar well into the winter and past the actual rut.

Moose Feeding

The site in the link near the top of the page says bulls don’t feed during the rut and can lose a large portion of their body weight. It’s possible the biggest bulls lose some weight, but they definitely eat their normal diet of bitter brush, willow leaves and shoots, and an occasional Russian olive plant. Bulls still fend off smaller bulls and check each time a cow urinates, but they eat! I’ve heard the same comments from of the tour company guides. Don’t believe it! I’ve also overheard them telling their guests moose are solitary in nature. In my experience, it appears they enjoy the company of another male or female or two.

Lewis

I photographed this moose at Schwabacher Landing last year in October. He’s the same moose people see regularly under the bridge over the Snake River at Moose Junction. Later in the year, he was along the Gros Ventre near the town of Kelly. As winter’s snow covered the valley floor, he was seen regularly out in the sage flats north of Kelly.

Antler

In mid-December, you might run across a shed antler like this one. While inside the park, it would be illegal to remove it. Outside the park, country regulations prohibit people from removing antlers until “opening day” for antler hunters on May 1st.

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Over the years, I have taken lots of photos of numerous different bull moose. Without a scar on the muzzle or cuts in the ears, exact identification is not 100% possible. I prefer them without tags and collars, so I can certainly live with the uncertainty and just enjoy taking their photos.

Previous Moose Posts:

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Anthropomorphism

I give the area moose names. The scientific community doesn’t care for the practice, but if Jane Goodall can name the chimps and apes she studied, I’m good with it! Without published numbers, it’s difficult to quickly tell someone I just saw the moose with 9×11 points, cuts in two ears, and a scrape down the right side of his muzzle. How about simply “Washakie”? Other people can call the same moose anything else they want, but a few names seem to have stuck, at least within a few of my photographer friends. There’s a large bull near the Snake River Bridge. He used to have an equally large bull with him for much of July and August. I called one Lewis and the other Clark. I hear people calling the remaining one Hollywood and the smaller one Understudy. The people in the Dornan’s area know them by those two names. The non-scientific community is plenty comfortable giving human names to their pets and also to the wild animals they see frequently. Lastly, a name or number helps me find specific animals if I take the time to add them into the keywords in Lightroom. This page would have been a much bigger challenge without the keyword searches.

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Caution!

TouronBefore I wind this page down, I feel like I should include some words of caution to all readers. First, the minimum legal distance is 25 yards. That’s very, very close to a standing moose! I prefer to stay back 40 yards or more and photograph them with telephoto lenses. Many of the images on this page are heavily cropped from the original. Please, don’t try getting close-up shots of a moose with an iPhone, and if you have a shorter lens, don’t expect it to get the same kind of shots as the people setting back from the scene with a jumbo lens. More than likely, you’ll be standing in their way! Don’t get fooled. Moose along the Gros Ventre and around Dornans are usually more accustomed to having humans around than back country moose.  Lastly, most moose will let you know if they are uncomfortable. Their ears drop down and their heads usually drop below their shoulders as they dance around in a distinctive tromping fashion. That’s a good time to get way back and give them ample room.

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Comments (7)

  1. Great post Mike. Scientist should really gather the knowledge of photographers, like you, who have been observing the moose for years. I’m sure you watch, and know more about their habits than they do.

  2. Maurice Horn

    Wonderful post, Michael. I enjoyed it a lot.

  3. Holy smokes…you have an amazing collection of moose images! As big as they are, they are not easy to photograph. You qualify as the “moose master” for fantastic images.

  4. Crystal Deatherage

    Loved this on the Moose. Just amazing and I like learning the “real” facts about these animals. Like you, we have always seen them with one to 3 other Moose.

  5. Mike thanks a bunch for all this info and wonderful photo’s I’ve enjoyed your moose photo’s over the last few years I’ve been following the blog here 🙂

  6. Another wonderful post Mike. As you know, I really enjoy your moose images and knowledge. In 10 days, I’ll be heading your way to get my annual dose of Teton therapy and hopefully some decent shots of moose. I hope to see you perhaps for lunch again?

  7. Mike. I really enjoyed this post and also the one on the moose calves.

    There are many like me who would love to be in your area photographing these amazing animals. I would guess most of them do not have the long lenses they need to get the shots you do. Thank you for pointing out that the moose are dangerous and that we all need to keep a respectful and safe distance.

    As always, I appreciate your passion for nature and presenting it in a very artistic way. Keep it up, and thanks.

    DB Young

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