Nancy planned on cross-country skiing at Happy Jack in southeast Wyoming on Jan. 19, but forgot her ski jacket. Instead of waiting in the car while her husband skied, she decided to go for a stroll in the woods with her Uggs and knee-length brown parka.
“I’ll just take a nice little hour-long walk,” she said.
Nancy talked with WyoFile on the condition that her last name remain anonymous. (No word on whether she was concerned about retribution from a certain hooved critter.)
The trails at Happy Jack are familiar terrain, Nancy said. She’s skied there for 13 years. However, that afternoon was the first time she saw a moose at the popular recreational area east of Laramie, she said. And Nancy only saw her — hidden right off the snowshoe trail in thick brush — for a second before things went south.
“I’m placing my right foot down, and I hear this snort,” she said. “Within a second, it hit me in my right rib cage and headbutted me into a tree. And my head hit the tree about two feet off the ground.”
She spit out snow, cuts all over her face as she roared out at the moose. Nancy looked up to see the animal’s big eyes about five feet away. Luckily, there were now a few trees between her and the cow.
Nancy yelled, waved her ski poles and ran for help. She would’ve used her phone, she said, but it was stuck in a pocket that was hard to access with her now cracked rib and severely broken arm.
“I broke the head off my ulna and shoved it up into my elbow,” she said, requiring surgery at 5:30 the next morning.
While Nancy found help and was OK, she said, it could’ve easily turned out differently had the moose decided to stomp on her or attack further.
Moose on the loose
This attack is unusual for moose, which typically avoid conflict with humans, according to Caroline Rosinski with Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Laramie region.
“They’re generally not super aggressive animals,” Rosinski said.
Still, if moose have calves, are hungry, tired, have been harassed by dogs or even are approached too close, they can lash out.
Rosinski noted that groomed and ungroomed ski trails make for easy moose passageways. Recreators should take note, she said, especially if they have dogs.
“Part of that is keeping dogs under control or on leash so that your dog doesn’t run off and provoke the moose and potentially bring it back to you,” she said.
Moose and dogs tend to not get along, with moose sometimes going out of their way to attack canines.
Rosinski suggests making noise on the trail to avoid spooking moose and not going near them. Or if the animal is spooked, she recommends behaving a bit like it’s a bear.
“Back away slowly,” she said. “Talking in a low voice, convincing it you’re not a threat.”
Of course, if a moose remains aggressive, people should try to get trees or rocks between their body and the ungulate, Rosinski advised.
If even that fails, the Medicine Bow Nordic Association wrote, and a moose knocks you down, “curl up and protect your head.”
That association put out a warning about moose in its Feb. 1 newsletter, stating that there have been a lot of moose sightings, “some of which have escalated to physical encounters.”
“The moose are much closer to the trailhead than in years past (think Campground loop), so please be alert!” the newsletter states.
Moose in that area have a “healthy population,” Rosinski said, but agency biologists are going up in a helicopter to count them this week and next to paint a clearer picture.
Even without that estimate, though, Rosinski said Game and Fish is proposing to make moose hunting tags in her region more specific to drive hunting to certain locations, like Pole Mountain, which is near Happy Jack.
Previously, hunters who pulled a moose tag could hunt in areas around Pole Mountain, the Snowy and Sierra Madre ranges. Now, Rosinski said, her agency is proposing five tags around Pole Mountain, five around the Sierra Madres, and are still figuring out how many to propose around the Snowies.
The institute’s Winter Moose Day involves volunteers walking along an adopted route, trying to find and document moose signs and populations. While it was initially designed to help Game and Fish, it’s now working with a UW researcher.
Dave Christianson is collaborating with the institute to gather data on the detectability of moose, according to Senior Project Coordinator Mason Lee.
“[Volunteers] record weather information, they record how many are in their group, if they pass other people on the trail, if they pass any dogs on the trail,” Lee said. “Because all of those factors will kind of influence whether moose are seen or not if they’re in the area. If there’s a lot of people or a lot of dogs, typically you’re not going to see moose.”
Some groups may spot moose that others don’t. For massive animals, they can be surprisingly sneaky.
And that was certainly true for Nancy, who didn’t see the moose in the thick foliage until it was too late.
“I couldn’t see her at all until she came out of the brush,” she said. “I remember seeing the head as it was starting to charge, and I couldn’t even see the back end of it.”
“What I’m just glad about,” she added, “[is] I’m not dead. I mean, honestly, she could have done so much more damage.”