Moose charges logger Peter Brown in Shutesbury
SHUTESBURY — Once a rare sight even in rural western Massachusetts, a growing moose population has become well-established across large stretches of Massachusetts forestland.
The world’s largest surviving deer species, which was pushed out of southern New England during the Colonial era by encroaching human populations, has made a return to its former habitat, increasing the possibility of risky contact with humans.
On Sept. 24, Peter Brown climbed down from his skidder, a tractor favored by commercial forestry operations, and set off into the Shutesbury wilderness on foot. A contract logger for the past 35 years, Brown is no stranger to the outdoors, and that day he was staking out his plot with the aim of conducting a routine trimming and felling operation on a stretch of public land near Pelham Road.
However, Brown had unwittingly stepped into another animal’s territory — that of a moose.
“I had gone about a quarter-mile uphill when I suddenly saw a big bull moose, the biggest I’d ever seen, about 8 feet tall,” Brown said. “It was a beautiful animal, with a chocolate-brown coat, right in its peak of life.”
Brown has had several moose encounters in his years of forestry work, all of them peaceful, so he decided to snap a quick photo. “I was fumbling for my camera when suddenly (the moose) charged me very abruptly.”
Brown had stumbled on a lone bull moose in the annual mating season of the early fall, also known as the rutting season, when males become more aggressive and prone to abrupt behavioral changes. Rather than try to scare it off, he decided to beat a quick retreat to the shelter of his vehicle.
“I had to run back uphill, weaving through the trees with this thing right behind me,” he said. “It was one of the most frightening moments of my life.”
Brown made it back to his skidder and recorded two short videos with his cellphone camera from the safety of its cabin.
The moose can be seen circling the vehicle for several minutes before finally retreating. “It was really unusual,” he said. “[The moose] wasn’t just charging to make me leave, he was actually attacking me.”
Incidents like these may become more and more common as the moose population in western New England stabilizes, a wildlife expert says.
“We estimate that there are about 850 to 1,000 moose in Massachusetts, which would make sense given their average range and distribution,” said David Stainbrook, a biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Stainbrook believes that the numbers are stabilizing after a slow return to the region. “These animals are concentrated in the western and central areas of the state, where they haven’t been since the late 1700s or so,” he said.
Because of their imposing size, moose have no natural predators in this region of North America, which limits any fight-or-flight response that most deer populations instinctively possess. “Moose are usually fairly docile in the presence of humans and get easily habituated, especially if there’s food around,” Stainbrook said.
However, the calving season in the spring, when mothers have to protect their young from harm, as well as the rutting season in the fall prompt a higher chance of aggressive behavior from moose.
“Bull moose are running around with a lot of built-up testosterone in their systems during the rut, which gives them a kind of tunnel vision and makes them more impulsive and confrontational,” he said. This period also correlates to a higher rate of vehicle collisions involving moose, as bulls may run unexpectedly across roads without regard for traffic.
Stainbrook urges hikers and other visitors to the woods to take precautions year-round in case of an encounter with moose.
“As with bears, be loud enough on the trail that an animal can hear you coming, and avoid walking dogs without a leash,” he said.
Natural human curiosity should be restrained, he added.
“It’s tempting to pull out a camera, but the safest response for people and for the moose is to calmly leave the area or give it a wide detour,” he said. “Moose are not usually dangerous but they should be given the respect you would give to any other large animal.”
Brown said he won’t give up his line of work, but he will be taking his own precautions in case of another chase.
“I’m thinking about getting an air horn or something else to startle it with,” he said, adding that he will always walk the woods with his chain saw in hand from now on.