Biologist's new book combines his photos with wisdom gained from decades in the field
Retired biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe poses in Denali National Park with antlers from an exceptionally large bull moose that he had followed for four years. The antlers had a spread of 79 1/4 inches.
( Photo by Victor Van Ballenberghe )
A friend calls him the "maestro of moose."
A local author, who included his profile in her book of essays, says he's probably "the only person in North America who will drive away from a nearby bear to search for a faraway moose."
By any name you give him, however, 60-year-old Vic Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage probably knows as much about the moose of Denali National Park as anyone alive. He's been studying them continuously since 1980.
He has also written a new book about them -- "In the Company of Moose" -- due in bookstores this month. Illustrated with 123 of Van Ballenberghe's photographs, including spectacular images of bull moose in full rut, the hardbound volume might suggest a nice page-turner for the coffee table. But the text offers a good deal more: the author's encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything moose-related, and his love of the subject.
"As I grow older and my scientific life winds down," Van Ballenberghe writes in his introduction, "I'm more taken by the beauty of moose, by their strange grace, by their gentle nature and by their individual personalities, which vary greatly."
With 35 years of field experience -- including a quarter-century tracking moose in Denali National Park -- he has come to regard them as generally calm creatures, with a few notable exceptions. A cow with a calf can be lethally protective, and bulls turn violent during the rut -- though the latter can be overstated, Van Ballenberghe says.
"Despite their reputation as angry, volatile beasts during mating season, bull moose for the most part are so focused on the tasks at hand that they pose little danger to people," he writes. "I spent thousands of hours in the field in close proximity to moose during the rut and seldom found them aggressive. But there were exceptions ..."
Relaxing last week in jeans and a red and black flannel shirt at his home in South Anchorage, the biologist-turned-author was encouraged to recall the exceptions.
Once, in Denali, he says, he got too close to an old bull he named "Grizzly" (in honor of its cranky disposition and scraggly appearance, including a long, prominent beard, also known as a bell or dewlap). Grizzly chased Van Ballenberghe into an alder patch, where his pack frame caught some branches and nearly prevented his escape. Luckily, Grizzly lost interest.
Another encounter occurred in May while Van Ballenberghe was trying to locate a radio-collared cow he knew had bred the previous fall. He was traveling slowly on snowshoes over the lingering drifts when he blundered upon the cow. She'd just given birth to twins and wasn't happy to see him.
"I was following the radio signal, and all of a sudden there she is," Van Ballenberghe recalls. "I was way too close, and she came for me. Of course, there I was on snowshoes, and what can you do?"
Except run. Van Ballenberghe strongly endorses the old backwoods maxim: Stand your ground against a charging bear, run from a charging moose.
"And if you do run," he says, "99 percent of the time moose are satisfied -- they won't chase you."
But if they do, the best option is to run to the far side of the nearest big tree -- as Van Ballenberghe did while fleeing the charging cow. He reached it just as she swept past.
"I stuck the antenna out, and she broke off one of the elements," he says. "And then she ran down and went back to the calves. ... I was very lucky."
A third run-in came on a day in the fall near Glennallen when he spotted an obviously injured bull -- "big as a wall" -- standing on three legs on the side of a hill above him. It was holding its injured front foot off the ground, which prompted Van Ballenberghe to investigate. As he got about 25 yards away, however, the bull suddenly set the foot back on the ground and came charging downhill at full speed.
"So I ran downhill and did what I usually do," he says. "I went about 10 yards and tripped over something and fell down -- and he ran right over the top of me. But he never touched me. I was just lucky because he literally -- I can still see the shadow."
The bull kept running downhill until it reached a pond, which was apparently where it really wanted to be. Soon it began feeding on aquatic plants, showing no more interest in the human.
"I think it's lucky I fell down," Van Ballenberghe says now. "Because actually, if I was upright, he probably would have hooked me with his antlers as he went by. ... And it was even luckier that he didn't step on me on the way over."
Of course, moose in the wild suffer violence themselves, nearly their whole lives long.
Van Ballenberghe writes about it in the chapter "Death of a Warrior," about a giant bull that finally met its match in the autumn rut (the story won first prize in the adult nonfiction category of the University of Alaska/ Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest a few years back), and in another chapter, "They Live if They Can and Die if They Must" -- which notes that moose deaths due to bear predation in Alaska are far more common than deaths due to wolf predation, in some places by a factor of 9 to 1.
In a five-year study of Denali moose calves born to radio-collared cows in the Wonder Lake region, Van Ballenberghe found that 53 percent were killed by bears, 6 percent by wolves and the remainder from accidents or winter starvation.
The study was limited, focusing on about 20 moose he managed to equip with radio transmitters. But Van Ballenberghe has also examined far larger populations of moose outside the park, including those in a wide-scale study that grew out of a 1970s proposal to build a giant hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River.
"That thing spawned millions of dollars' worth of studies," he says. "And in the Glennallen area, everything was radio-collared that you can imagine -- wolves and caribou and moose and bears and wolverine."
Van Ballenberghe joined the effort, studying moose calves and bear predation in the Glennallen area, and found that 79 percent of the calf mortality back then was due to bears and only a small fraction due to wolves. He once watched a single Denali bear chase and eat nine moose calves in three weeks.
Presenting such evidence to the Alaska Board of Game while also questioning the wisdom of state-sponsored aerial wolf control measures has often put him at odds with the government.
It also results in what seems to be a paradox: Van Ballenberghe often finds himself arguing in favor of maintaining the very predators that kill the moose he loves -- in order to save both moose and predators in the long run and keep the habitat healthy.
"Predation is extremely important in the population dynamics of moose," he says.
LIVE TO EAT
Too many moose can ravage a habitat, just as the mostly predator-free moose in the Anchorage Bowl have managed to overbrowse areas of Kincaid Park.
And no wonder, considering all the time that moose spend eating.
Van Ballenberghe has found that, during a typical day in the summer, a moose eats for about 12 hours. As for the time spent "not eating," moose devote about half of it -- six hours a day -- to chewing their cuds.
Moose are such voracious eaters, Van Ballenberghe says, they often swallow the twigs and leaves that make up most of their diet without sufficiently chewing. Then they catch up on masticating their food later by coughing up a cud -- "like a plug of tobacco" -- which forms a telltale lump in their cheek.
Favored foods, he says, include branch tips and leaves from willow, aspen and birch, certain aquatic plants, fireweed and mushrooms -- but not spruce, which are poisonous to moose.
And they have to eat a lot of it. A bull moose -- which can stand 7 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh in excess of 1,600 pounds -- consumes an average of 34 pounds of food a day, which provides about 23,000 calories. A female moose consumes about 27 pounds of food a day.
Moose, of course, need to pack on the pounds in summer to survive the unpredictable nature of winter, when deep snows can sometimes seal off their habitat. Cows also need to provide for nursing calves, and bulls need to add pounds for the rut, the two- or three-week breeding period each autumn when a bull stops eating altogether and sheds up to 200 pounds.
In fact, moose eat so much all year that they hardly ever sleep, which Van Ballenberghe says is also a function of being a major prey species. Predators can sleep, but prey often can't, at least not in the open. And since moose, as big as they are, can hardly hide, they've evolved highly sensitive alarm systems that wake them at the slightest suspicious smell or movement or sound -- usually after mere seconds of sleep.
In 25 years of studying the moose of Denali National Park, Van Ballenberghe has often seen moose lay their heads on the ground as if to sleep -- as many as six times a day -- but never for longer than four minutes at a time.
"They might doze off, but boy, if a twig snaps, they're instantly awake. So even though they're asleep, their senses are still there," he says.
Van Ballenberghe came to this moose passion in a fairly roundabout way. His father was an immigrant from Belgium who settled in upstate New York, where he launched a painting and wallpapering business. His mother was a farm girl from Ohio. Together they bought a dairy farm near Middleburg, N.Y., where Van Ballenberghe was raised as the last of four children.
Life on the farm must have fostered his appreciation for the life sciences. Attending State University of New York in Oneonta, he majored in biology and earned a teaching certificate. Then, after working as a high school science teacher for a couple of years, he entered graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate while studying moose and wolves.
In Minnesota, Van Ballenberghe became one of the first biologists in the world to apply the new technology of radio-collaring to the study of wolves, joining another young biologist, David Mech (who would later become a renowned wolf researcher), in a four-year study of northeast Minnesota wolf pups and their environment.
After earning his doctorate, he began looking for a job. The dream, he says, was to work as a field biologist in Alaska, but many other biologists were looking here too, and he wasn't optimistic. Construction of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, however, offered new opportunities. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game needed someone to study the pipeline's impact on moose trying to migrate across it. Van Ballenberghe landed the job.
For the next five years, he used airplanes to observe radio-collared moose. Ultimately, the research concluded that yes, the pipeline would probably prevent some moose from crossing the corridor in certain places during the deepest snows of winter, but it probably wouldn't matter in the long run.
Still, that wasn't the start of his real education as a moose biologist, Van Ballenberghe says. That didn't begin until 1980, when he was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to be a field biologist of the truly muddy-boot variety, exploring Denali National Park for weeks at a time, year after year, to study the resident moose.
Since retiring from that position in 2000, he has continued to study Denali moose through the University of Alaska Fairbanks as well as written a book. He still spends about six weeks a year in the field, searching for surviving moose calves each spring and following the rut each fall.
Through it all, he's thankful not to have ended up as the kind of biologist who is chained to his desk or relegated to an airplane. He would much rather work in the field.
"I made my living as a researcher, and I published a lot of papers," he says. "But I've always considered myself more of a naturalist. ... I was lucky to be able to do what I've done there. Nowadays, there are very, very few field biologists."
Reporter George Bryson can be reached at email@example.com.
A bull moose can stand 7 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh more than 1,600 pounds.
Favorite foods include branch tips and leaves from willow, aspen and birch, certain aquatic plants, fireweed and mushrooms -- but not spruce, which are poisonous to moose.
A bull moose consumes an average of 34 pounds of food a day. A female consumes about 27 pounds.
Van Ballenberghe says that during a typical summer day, a moose eats for about 12 hours (the equivalent of a human eating 24 half-hour meals a day).