Moose make themselves at home in farm country

Research project examines why moose are thriving in a region once considered unsuitable habitat for the species

A moose sighting on the Prairies was a rare occurrence a few decades ago — rare enough to make a farmer stop, gawk and scramble for a camera.

But the times are changing — for moose and farmers.

Today, the number of moose that are carving out a living in the grain-growing regions of Western Canada is greater than ever.

Ryan Brook, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s agriculture college, says the animals have moved south from their traditional home and have found an amenable habitat, complete with ample food sources, few natural predators and an abundance of spots that provide water and shelter.

“They’ve expanded quite dramatically, and I think it comes down to several factors,” said Brook, who leads a research initiative known as the Saskatchewan Farmland Moose Project.

“In most of farmland Saskatchewan, you don’t see big predators surviving. Wolves and black bears are quite rare … so having no predation is quite important, especially for reproduction.”

“They also feed on agricultural crops and as you know, there’s been a real shift over the last 20 plus years where wheat production has declined and canola has really increased. As it turns out, moose really do well on canola and oilseed crops, and they’ll also feed on peas and flax as well.”

The moose project is aimed at discovering why moose are thriving in a region of Western Canada that was once considered highly unsuitable habitat for the species.

Learning more about the success of moose in farmland regions will allow farmers, wildlife groups and others to make informed management decisions.

Brook’s research team used a net gun and helicopter to capture 40 adult cows and fit them with GPS satellite collars.

The collars track the movements of the animals by recording their locations each hour and relaying the information via satellite at regular intervals.

All of the moose involved in the study were collared in 2015 and 2014 and captured between Sask-atoon and Regina.

The research team determined that moose were gravitating toward areas that had “knob and kettle” land forms, which typically include rolling hills, tree-ringed sloughs and wetlands.

Shade and water are two key elements in moose habitat. They allow the animals to retreat to cool areas during the heat of the day, where they are not likely to be disturbed or detected.

Under warm summer conditions, moose will normally lay low during the day and come out to feed when the temperatures drop.

Brook is working on a project that uses modelling to determine the distribution of moose across the three prairie provinces.

His research, which was recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, was the first to look at moose behaviour in regions outside the species’ typical boreal parkland habitat.

He determined that reproduction rates of farmland moose were typically high and survival rates are good.

The research also suggests that movement varies from one animal to the next.

Some of the collared animals spent the entire season in the same township, while others routinely moved more than 40 kilometres a day.

Individual movements are generally greater in winter. The movement of pregnant cows also spikes significantly in the days immediately preceding calving, presumably when the cow is seeking a perfect spot to drop her offspring.

Brook said learning more about moose habitat is important because the animals can present risks and benefits to rural residents, farmers, motorists, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

In particular, they pose a significant threat to motorist safety.

Damage to agricultural crops is also a consideration, but losses caused by moose are still considered minor compared to damages caused by deer and other species.

Data collection for the research is nearing completion with additional results expected this year.

Funding for the project was provided by the Saskatchewan Fish and Wildlife Development Fund, the Saskatchewan environment ministry, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, the Cyril Capling Trust at the U of S and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

For more information, visit the Saskatchewan Farmland Moose Project’s Facebook page.

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