By Christina Schmidt
SHERIDAN — Seventy years ago, a large truck with wooden sideboards traveled through Sheridan at 11 a.m. on its way to the Johnson-Sheridan county line in the Bighorn Mountains. A week earlier, more than a dozen men had cleared by hand the final spring snowdrifts off Red Grade Road in preparation of the truck’s arrival.
But the delivery of the travelers in the back of the truck had been anticipated for years. When the truck arrived at its final destination above Spear-O-Wigwam in the early afternoon, eight moose — six female calves, one male calf and a two-year-old bull — tentatively stepped out and began exploring their new home. The moose were trapped by Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists during February and March 1948 near Moran after luring them into corrals with forage. They were then transferred to Jackson where they were kept until May 26 when they began their 447-mile, 17-hour journey to the Bighorns.
The release was witnessed by The Sheridan Press outdoor columnist George Grunkemeyer, who gave a report to readers the following day in his regular Friday column.
“This planting is one for the books since this is the first time that moose have ever been successfully transplanted,” he wrote.
“It has been tried many times before but ended in failure.”
The transplant was indeed a success. The moose navigated through their new surroundings and began making appearances far from the original release site. In the following months, Grunkemeyer asked the public to call him and report sightings of the moose, and he shared the updates with readers throughout the summer and fall — George Jorgenson saw the two bulls near Black Mountain; Claude Businga reported a bull on the road above Tepee Lodge; E.C. Bowman reported seeing a cow just below Bowman Reservoir; “Shorty” Enderle saw one up Wolf Creek Canyon; a cow was seen near Monarch; another was reported in the Willow Park area; and forest ranger Y.Z. David saw tracks on the east and west forks of Big Goose Creek. One intrepid cow walked along Clear Creek in Buffalo and ambled through the Shrum Lumber Company’s mill yard in July.
Current archaeological evidence suggests moose are not native to Wyoming. In the late 1800s, moose migrated out of Idaho and began appearing in Yellowstone National Park and the Teton mountain range, slowly spreading to other areas in western Wyoming. By 1912, there were an estimated 500 moose in Wyoming and 3,210 by 1940.
It is unknown if the Bighorn transplant truly was the first successful long-range transplant of moose in the United States as Grunkemeyer suggested, but it was not the first on the continent.
“Moose were introduced to Newfoundland in 1878 and 1904 and currently number over 100,000, so there was some history of moose relocations within North America,” said Tim Thomas, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Sheridan regional biologist.
But the Bighorns had been considered a location for moose introductions for at least 20 years prior to 1948.
According to Neal Blair in “The History of Wildlife Management in Wyoming,” state game commissioner Bruce Nowlin wrote in his 1927-1928 annual report, “It is possible that in 1929 a number of moose will be captured in Jackson Hole and planted in the Big Horn Mountains.” However, there is no evidence that this was attempted.
But a capture effort did happen in 1934. Eighteen moose were trapped near Jackson, but all the animals died before transport.
By 1941, the Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Association’s moose commission, headed by local dentist Dr. Ray Bentzen, had begun advocating for another try at bringing moose to the Bighorns. The logistical groundwork was laid with the help of WGFD commissioner Dr. O.R. Docekal and with support from local WGFD biologists and federal Pittman-Robertson representatives. Habitat surveys by foot and air took place in 1947 to ensure adequate habitat would be available if a transplant occurred.
As plans for the transplant began to firm up, Dr. Bentzen and Grunkemeyer traveled to Jackson in the weeks prior to the release to check the status of the trapping effort.
“It is my personal opinion the reason this plant was so successful was the method in which it was handled by Mr. (Warren) Allred of Pittman-Robertson and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission men who took care of them after their capture and while they were in captivity,” Grunkemeyer wrote. “I saw them while in Jackson this spring and no baby ever received more protective care than those nine (one of the animals escaped before transport) ungainly critters. Doc Bentzen and I almost had to have a warrant just to get a peek at them. It was that kind of care that made possible the delivery of them to us in the Big Horn area.”
The transplant was deemed a success, and a transplant of eight more moose — two adult bulls, four cows, one female calf and one male calf — took place in March 1950 on the Tud Smith Ranch west of Buffalo.
Even as he cheered the first two transplants, Grunkemeyer was concerned about the safety of the moose during the fall hunting season. No moose hunting permits were expected to be issued for several years, but Grunkemeyer feared that elk hunters, unaccustomed to having to distinguish between moose and elk, might accidentally shoot one.
“The game and fish department and the Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Association have spent a lot of money and time so that we could have moose in the Big Horns [sic],” he wrote in October 1948. “…it would be a dirty shame to lose a single one of the eight because of some careless hunter’s itchy trigger finger. If nothing happens to them, in a few years we will have a good stand of the animals and maybe our children will see the day that they can legally take one during hunting season. I think that’s worth being careful for.”
These concerns proved prophetic. By the late 1960s, accidental killings due to mistaken identity had become such an issue that the moose hunting season was moved from October to September to avoid overlapping with elk season. Unfortunately, moose numbers continued to lag and hunting was closed by 1973.
To boost the population, another release of three adult bulls and two female calves was made in March 1974 on the Mary Borden Ranch near Rapid Creek. A fourth and final transplant of six cows and two female calves was made in 1987 near the Hunter Ranger Station west of Buffalo.
Seasons were reopened and held intermittently through the 1980s and 1990s, and moose numbers were estimated to be more than 500 by the early 2000s.
Today, moose in the Bighorns number close to 300, though getting an exact number is difficult due to their solitary nature and preference for heavy timber and vegetation. The WGFD is currently conducting a study on moose using multiple satellite collars to gather data on survival and mortality rates and habitat preferences. The study will conclude in 2020.
The local men who helped shovel snowdrifts off Red Grade in preparation for the arrival of the first batch of moose were Homer Ketchum, Ed Upton, Ben Daniels, Joe Bury, Joe Patz, Clarence McIntosh, Dan Madia, John Kukuchka, Harry Wantulok, Harry Vine, Frank Sobotka, Stanley Laya, Hank Barbula, Joe Novara, Nick Petrovitch and George Buyok.