BARKHAMSTED – When the Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department posted a video on March 24 of two moose crossing Route 181 near the Barkhamsted Reservoir, Connecticut’s TV news stations scrambled to get permission to air the footage.
Moose are rarely seen in the area and the details of their Connecticut residency aren’t well known. So the up-close sighting recorded by firefighter Lt. Kevin Archer held more appeal than the standard fare of backyard bears.
“Most people are very excited when they see a moose,” said Andrew LaBonte, a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wildlife biologist who studies Connecticut’s resident moose, estimated to total roughly 150.
In northwestern Connecticut moose are clustered in New Hartford and Barkhamsted. The population is mostly found on the Metropolitan District Commission’s thousands of acres of watershed property surrounding Barkhamsted Reservoir and within the more than 6,000 acres of the Great Mountain Forest (GMF) spanning Norfolk and Canaan.
The northeastern Connecticut moose population is found in the Woodstock, Union, Ashford, and Stafford region. LaBonte said they have been “quieter” with fewer sightings in recent years.
Moose have been living in Connecticut for decades. They migrated south in the 1980s after abandoned agricultural fields in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine evolved into regenerating forests, perfect moose habitat, and the populations exploded in those northern New England states.
“MDC is the prime habitat of moose because they do a lot of forest management,” which supports an ideal habitat, LaBonte said. They’ve seen as many as seven moose at a time in one clearcut.
Moose have home ranges of approximately 10 to 15 square miles. The relative isolation and expansive terrain make the GMF and MDC (which is off-limits to visitors) two of the regions’ moose hotspots.
GMF staff began to see signs of moose presence in the forest with major pellet groups and shed antlers in the late 1990s, according to Matt Gallagher, director of programs and operations for the forest owned and managed by a private nonprofit foundation.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2003 that GMF foresters actually saw a moose, while out marking boundary lines along Route 272. Though it’s estimated there are approximately 21 moose in the 6,247-acre forest, sightings are still rare—maybe one a year. They’re spotted as staff conduct forest inventories, manage boundary lines, or change batteries and memory cards on the wildlife cameras in the forest.
“Although they have poor eyesight, they have a strong sense of smell and hearing, which I would attribute to the dearth of sightings. They may sense us far sooner than we see them,” Gallagher said.
Spring, when calves are born, is one of two prime times to see moose, according to LaBonte. He seems to have been prophetic in an interview a couple of weeks before the fire department video, listing Route 20 and Route 181 through Hartland and Barkhamsted, west of Barkhamsted Reservoir, as the places with the best chance for a moose sighting.
When new calves arrive, the previous year’s offspring are kicked out and must seek a home of their own. These dispersing moose are on the move, traveling up to 10 miles a day in search of new territory.
The breeding season in the fall, aka “the rut,” is the other time of year moose are highly active and most likely to be sighted. Both seasons are cautionary times for drivers, notably in the early morning and evening when dark-colored moose can be difficult to see.
“When checking the road for moose at night, look higher than you normally would for deer and reduce the speed of your vehicle,” a 2021 DEEP press release advised. Moose are taller than bears or deer. Therefore, if your car strikes a moose, the DEEP says it’s likely to impact the windshield.
DEEP notes that all moose, deer, and bear collisions with vehicles should be reported to local, state, or DEEP Environmental Conservation Police Officers. (The 24-hour Dispatch Center can be reached at 860-424-3333.)
Encountering a moose while hiking is very unlikely, given their sense of smell. However, any interaction requires caution should it happen. While he encourages caution, LaBonte, whose research has brought him into close contact with moose many times, said that in his experience, once he alerts a moose to his presence it simply runs away.
As with most wildlife interactions, it is important to be extra cautious in the presence of offspring. “If it’s a female with a calf you never know what’s going to happen. That’s probably the most dangerous situation,” he said.
Visitors to Great Mountain Forest, which has a network of hiking trails, are discouraged from seeking out moose encounters.
“It would be irresponsible on our behalf as stewards and to the species if we increase stressors on the population by sending hikers to areas where moose might be seen. The safety of our visitors is another reason we discourage moose encounters,” Gallagher said.
“Although they may appear docile, moose can become aggressive during the rutting season or after calving and demonstrate unpredictable behavior in an encounter. Imagine a 750 to 1,400-pound mammal, standing over 6 feet tall, charging at you at 35 to 40 mph.”
Anyone curious to learn more about New England’s largest land mammal and its habitat may call Great Mountain Forest (860 824-8188) and speak to a staff forester. They’ll even show you moose artifacts found throughout the forest.
Wherever you live, DEEP asks that you report a moose sighting on its website here.
This story was originally run in The Winsted Citizen