Four carpetbagging moose roaming the wilds of northeastern Oregon's Blue Mountains now are working undercover for Da Man, and they have some new bling to prove it.
The female moose are the first in Oregon history to be captured and fitted with radio collars. They will provide inside information to wildlife biologists on the wanderings, haunts and habits of Oregon's newest and now-largest land mammal.
State wildlife biologists are interested in learning whether the non-native moose — which likely moved in from Washington — flourish enough in the expansive Umatilla National Forest to one day host limited hunting opportunities.
"They're very unique to Oregon and they've been a long time coming," says Vic Coggins, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Enterprise. "We've had sightings for 40 years. But to finally have a small breeding population is exciting."
Oregon's moose population is conservatively estimated now at 35 animals, with an estimated five bulls, Coggins says.
By regularly tracking these collared moose, biologists will learn what habitat they prefer and define their migration patterns.
The study will also quantify their breeding successes and provide proof of whether they are year-round Oregonians, Coggins says.
The tracking devices will also give biologists their first, best chance to develop a decent estimate of the massive, mysterious creatures roaming the 541 area code.
"You have to be able to find them to count them, and this will help us find them," Coggins says. "There were never even enough to collar them before. So this will really help us determine just how many moose are out there."
While moose have likely wandered Oregon's backcountry in the past, there are no references to them being found here in modern times. But that doesn't mean Oregonians haven't tried.
In 1922, five moose calves were brought to Southern Oregon from Alaska in preparation for a transplant, says Michelle Dennehy, the ODFW's wildlife communications coordinator.
Those moose were bottle-fed and hand-raised before their release around Tahkenitch Lake near Reedsport. A 1925 Oregon Game Commission report referred to the released moose as "thriving." The report called the transplant "a complete success" and predicted that the population would "become firmly established" in that area.
However, their sometimes gnarly disposition toward people and widespread damage led to the herd's ultimate demise.
One by one, the animals were killed after clashes with people. The last of these moose — already blinded by birdshot — was shot and killed in 1939 after it was found stuck between two logs, according to the 1998 book Land Mammals of Oregon.
"The population was reduced to zero," ODFW biologist Mark Vargas says.
Chance sightings and finally photographic evidence began to surface in the late 1960s that the population was back to at least one.
In 1974, a moose very famously swam the Snake River from Idaho to Oregon, where it caused quite a ballyhoo before it swam back two weeks later.
Clearly, moose do stand out in Oregon, where elk previously reigned as the state's largest land mammal.
Adults weigh a ton and stand more than 6 feet tall at the shoulder. The wide, massive antlers and spindly legs help generate a mystique for the males.
Sightings most often occur in the Umatilla National Forest north of Elgin off Forest Road 62 and on Highway 204 between Elgin and Tollgate.
Coggins says he's quite sure Oregon's herd are resident breeders and remnants of animals that ventured from the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington, where their presence is widely documented.
Enough sightings have occurred in recent years that ODFW biologist Pat Matthews believed it was time to see what's really out there.
He approached hunting organizations that helped fund the moose-capture during the week of Jan. 14 in Wallowa County.
Leading Edge Aviation, a special helicopter team from Clarkston, Wash., was hired to use special net guns to capture the four moose.
Ground teams hobbled the animals and fitted hoods around their eyes to ease stress while they fitted them with collars. Two collars emit radio frequencies so they can be easily found with an electronic receiver. The other two now wear Global Positioning System transmitters that track their exact paths, allowing Matthews to download data without the moose ever knowing that they're providing evidence of their cohorts.
Coggins hopes to get a bull collared either later this winter or next year, as well.
If biologists can document at least "a couple hundred" adults, Coggins could recommend a very limited hunting season similar to those for mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Until then, Coggins and Matthews will gather all the information they can from their bling-wearing snitches, and all of Oregon will be waiting for updates.
"When you talk about moose, there is a lot of interest in this state," Coggins says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.