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Moose spur tough decisions for Washington wildlife officials

To euthanize or tranquilize? That is the question state wildlife officials must ask as a last resort when moose become a high-risk threat to humans.

Spokane officers have had to answer the question several times this winter.

"Each case is different," Capt. Dan Rahn of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police said. "Putting a moose down or capturing and moving it away are both difficult decisions we'd rather not have to make. Public safety is our main concern."

The Fish and Wildlife office in Spokane receives hundreds of moose-related calls or complaints a year, Rahn said.

In most cases, if left alone, the moose resolve the problem themselves by leaving the private garden, public playground, highway or other area of concern on their own.

In some cases, wildlife officers visit the situation and haze the moose out of an area. They often use paint-ball rifles to sting the moose on the rump and chase it away. An officer might have to show up daily for a week in a single case to get the moose to cooperate, Rahn said.

"One thing I want to emphasize — never feed a moose," he said. "No good will come of it. A moose that approaches humans is headed for trouble."

Persistent cases of nuisance moose require extreme measures:

  • Tranquilize and relocate.
  • Euthanize and salvage the meat to a food bank or charity house.
  • Bring in a state-qualified Master Hunter with a special moose permit to shoot the moose and take care of the meat at his own expense.

Moose, the largest of North America's deer family, are tall, dark and handsome in a goofy, loveable way. Many people see them as curiosities they want to feed or photograph as though they were cattle in a petting zoo.

But looks can be deceptive. Moose are notorious for their dicey dispositions.

Washington annually distributes 10 special moose permits to Master Hunters in a lottery. One of the hunters is called by state wildlife officers on the rare occasion that a problem moose must be killed. "We used to give out 20 permits, but we never came close to filling them so we've cut it back to 10 so we wouldn't keep so many hunters on the fence wondering whether they would be called," Rahn said.

In 2014, Spokane-area officers filed 75 report forms on moose incidents that required a significant response, Rahn said.

Each response is concluded with a dose of education about bringing in dogs and trying to get everyone in the area to stay away from the moose.

Despite the efforts, 2014 was a fairly normal year in the extreme response category, with officers eventually tranquilizing and relocating 16 moose. They called hunters in to shoot four moose.

Already in 2015, Fish and Wildlife officers have responded to more than 20 calls. Four moose have been captured and relocated. One moose has been euthanized.

"We tranquilized a moose ... and took it to northern Spokane County," Rahn said. "It was in a neighborhood where it had no easy escape route to an area where it wouldn't be a chronic problem."

A moose near Chattaroy, Washington, didn't get a second chance.

"It was aggressive, charging people and damaging property," Rahn said. "It didn't respond to hazing. After a few days, the officer decided to put it down since it wasn't in a good area for calling in one of the Master Hunters."

Inland Northwest Wildlife Council volunteers, who are trained and licensed to salvage wild game, assisted the officer in handling and skinning the carcass before they delivered the meat to the Union Gospel Mission, Rahn said.

"Killing a moose is not popular. It's our last resort," he said.

But tranquilizing and relocating a moose isn't a slam-dunk option, either.

The agency has been trying to cut back on tranquilizing moose since the number soared to more than 20 a few years ago. Cost for a tranquilizing operation, the drugs and the relocation run about $1,000, said Madonna Luers, Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman in Spokane.

"It can be dangerous to the moose as well as the staff that has to move the moose, which can weigh 800 pounds," she said.

"Sometimes the moose don't survive the relocation effort, depending on their physical condition, age, time of year, weather and luck," Rahn said.

The department tries to avoid tranquilizing moose during hunting seasons because the meat may not be safe to eat if the animal is killed within 30 days of being tranquilized, according to drug label warnings. Tranquilized moose are ear-tagged with a phone number a hunter can call to see if the meat is safe to eat.

"If we shoot a moose, the meat can be salvaged," Rahn said. "If we tranquilize a moose and it dies from stress or whatever, we must destroy the meat because of the drug in its system.

"Sometimes they'll vomit and breath it down into their lungs, which might cause them to die later from infection. Different things can happen. We want people to realize tranquilizing is not always the answer."

In January, twin moose that had lost their mother became a safety concern in the small Palouse farming town of Fairfield. They threatened a family that had to take refuge on a neighbor's porch. Instead of running away from responding officers, they advanced toward them.

"They'd become habituated to people," Rahn said.

When word got out that the Fish and Wildlife police, after several hazing attempts, were returning to euthanize the moose and salvage the meat, protestors rallied with video cameras.

Wildlife officials chose to avoid a confrontation.

They tranquilized and relocated the two moose in a horse trailer to an area north of Mount Spokane.

"We only have so many options for where we take them, especially in winter when mountain roads are impassable," Rahn said, noting that moose can cover a lot of ground.

A month later, Rahn unhappily reported that one of the moose already has been getting into trouble.

"There are small farms all over," he said. "When a moose is habituated to people, it's likely to be a problem.

"We just moved a problem somewhere else."

Washington Fish and Wildlife officers and bystanders move a tranquilized cow moose into the back of a horse trailer at Comstock Park. Courtesy Spokesman-Review