Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Moose on the erstwhile prairie
Bryan Schlosser, Regina Leader-Post
While most of our original prairie ecology is in rapid retreat, woodland creatures have been moving out onto the plains for many decades, taking advantage of habitat they find in farmyards and prairie towns. The white-tailed deer may have been the first to come out onto the prairie and find it hospitable. The raccoon, three species of arboreal squirrels, and the red fox have followed. Strangest of all, over the last five to ten years, moose have joined the mix of forest fauna now living on the erstwhile prairie. The highway from Saskatoon to Regina now has several moose-crossing signs.
You see moose in cropland, in farm shelterbelts, and on the edge of human settlements wherever there is enough cover for them to get by. Oddly enough, though, the moose seem to avoid the natural landscapes on the prairie--whether it is open grassland or wooded coulees. At Cherry Lake, where our land joins onto several thousand acres of poplar and ash-filled ravines, creeks, lakes, and upland prairie, we have seen only one moose in our six years. (It was last spring. As we crossed the creek in the bottomland, my daughter Maia and I heard a loud crashing sound. I looked up in time to get a quick glimpse of a moose's hind end heading east and turning back I could just make out the last of Maia disappearing to the west.)
And so it was not surprising when moose started coming into the city of Regina, attracted to the wooded landscapes in Wascana Park. Every winter several are spotted in Wascana Centre and it has been a treat seeing their spoor when we go for a ski or a walk in the park.
A week ago, Karen and I walked around Wascana lake. We saw a couple of white-tailed jack rabbits (a true prairie species now far more common in the city than in the surrounding land which is cropped so intensively there is not enough cover for a jack to survive).
Then we spotted a red fox crossing the ice to Spruce Island in broad daylight.
At several spots along the shore of the lake we found moose droppings. Most were between the shore and Spruce Island, but the largest pile was directly in front of the Legislative Building, though I doubt the moose was editorializing.
A young man I know who is a waiter at The Willows Restaurant in the park says that they often see two moose crossing the ice toward Spruce Island after dark. Sometimes they make an announcement and the patrons get up from their tables to go to the window and watch the world's largest antlered mammal heading for its bedding site in the city.
These two Wascana moose have been the talk of the town this winter, particularly for those who frequent the park. Neither of them has caused any trouble, though one reportedly does not flee from people. This characteristic made it easy for Conservation Officers who tried to tranquilize it this week and accidentally killed it with perhaps too large a dose (here is the news item in today's paper).
The officers of course were just doing their job. The authorities (from the City or from Wascana Centre?), wanting to avoid blame or litigation, were worried about people getting too close to a habituated moose and perhaps taunting it or causing it to turn on them. That could happen, perhaps, and, yes, moose are known to be unpredictable at times, but usually not in winter when there are no young calves around. People do stupid things in the presence of large wild animals to be sure, as tourists to Canada's mountain parks demonstrate every summer. But couldn't we try to find ways to live with a moose or two in the little scraps of wildness we tolerate in our urban park? Couldn't we just for once take a little chance, if not for the good of the moose then for the rest of us who like having the moose around?
As a prairie conservationist, I wish we could find a way to restore and foster some prairie ecology in Wascana Park, but our European love of woodland has turned it into a funky urban forest and artificial wetland. And as funky urban habitat goes, Wascana is pretty darn good. It brings a lot of wildlife into the city, including a couple hundred species of birds each year, many of which are in decline. If we try, and don't think first of insurance, ass-covering, and lawyers, we can find ways of coexisting with these wild woodland creatures. After all, they arrive here because we have created an island of habitat in a wasteland of industrialized agribusiness. Whether it is a Black-throated Green Warbler looking for landfall during a long migration or a moose needing somewhere to browse and shelter for the winter, all of our wildlife are struggling to survive in a world we are making less habitable all the time. Finding ways to share our urban wildness with them is the least we can do.