After two hours and 20 minutes slowly scanning yards and fields between South Park Loop and High School roads, driving up and down the side streets off Gregory Lane and rolling down Boyles Hill Road, the four-person Moose Day group spotted zero moose.
“I’m sure we drove past several moose and they were just hunkered down,” said Kate Gersh, associate director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation.
The foundation organizes the annual count, the 10th of which was Saturday.
“I just think that’s amazing about wild animals,” she said. “It’s not a given you’re going to see them. I always think it’s a bit of magic whenever humans and wildlife intersect.”
Gersh’s group wasn’t alone in its failure to spot — over a dozen of 33 teams in the field came back empty-handed. But no data is still valuable data, said Moose Day coordinator Frances Clark.
“What we are working on are trends,” Clark said. “No one year makes a trend. We’re looking at what the data tells us over time.”
Eighty volunteers searched the county on skis and snowshoes, on the back of snowmobiles and from inside warm cars, checking off 53 delineated areas of Teton County. Ninety-four moose were seen.
The count was in line with a “normal” year, Clark said. Often the count falls somewhere in the 90s, though the 2017 count produced a particularly large number of 172, the largest since Moose Day began in 2009.
For those who did spot moose, like the three-person group combing Skyline, initial reports indicated the Jackson Hole herd is in good numbers and good health. The Skyline group logged one moose, an adult cow feeding on a wooded slope.
Clark, who completed her seventh count this year, was part of a duo that scanned the John Dodge area, Wilderness Ranch and a few other areas in Wilson. The pair counted two moose.
“It was luck of the draw,” she said. “They disappeared within three minutes. Right place, right time, which is a lot of this.”
The snow-boots-on-the-ground sightings are crucial to the state’s annual population survey, said Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Aly Courtemanch. Citizen scientists often spot animals that otherwise might be overlooked.
“Citizen scientists help observe moose that we may otherwise miss from the helicopter, especially in town and neighborhoods,” she said.
While Emily Cohen was “a little disappointed” that she didn’t see any moose (at least, not while on the count — she saw one later while driving out to the airport) the new nature mapper did spot a juvenile bald eagle perched in a tree and what appeared to be two rough-legged hawks.
“Any opportunity that I can go out with people who are more knowledgeable about the landscape, the habitat and the whole environment is always a worthwhile experience,” she said.
Linda Dudinyak and her scouting partner also saw no moose during nearly five hours of patrolling East Jackson, the Gill Addition, and portions of Highway 89 and the Elk Refuge Road. But like Gersh’s group, they did see some wildlife.
The two spotted a young mule deer napping on a deck on Henley Road and nearly 20 bighorn sheep on Miller Butte. Over in East Jackson they witnessed a more unusual scene, a raven atop a streetlight plucking feathers from what appeared to be a dead waxwing, apparently preparing to eat it.
Wildlife sightings — be it birds, mammals or, in the case of the raven and the waxwing, nature taking its course — are what makes the count useful, Clark said.
“We just hope people see something else,” she said.
Though, in the end, ungulates are really where it’s at. Locals never seem to tire of spotting the “dorky looking” and “endearing” animals lumbering around the community, Clark said. It’s partly what keeps a healthy core of volunteers coming back year after year to give their time — this year, 268 hours and counting — to tallying the Jackson Hole herd.
“In the summertime you see [moose] in the wet areas, and they put their whole head underwater. They come up dripping with aquatic plants. They’re just … weird looking,” she said. “Elk tend to be more majestic. I don’t think that carries at all with moose. It’s a different kind of appreciation that’s just more endearing.”