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Deeteelí brings ‘good’ message: Shiras moose sighted in Diné Bikéyah

CANYON POINT, Utah

A deeteel, a Shiras moose subspecies, is traveling across Central and Northern Navajo.

The deeteel (or deeteelí), first spotted in the Tóta’ and the Naat’áanii Nééz-Tsé Bit’a’í areas, is here in Diné Bikéyah to check on its land, said members of the Diné Medicine Men Association.

And in a traditional sense, it’s bringing Diné a good message.

The Shiras moose’s message is similar to a coyote bringing ill omens, said association President Leland Grass.

“They (deeteel) are the land keepers,” he said. “They’re Mother Earth keepers.

“They’re bringing a good message,” he said, “but we as Indigenous people have to acknowledge that.”

Grass recently attended a meeting with medicine people across the Far West and western Canada to discuss privately the deeteel traveling across Diné Bikéyah.

Grass said if Diné don’t acknowledge and make offerings to the deeteel, it could lead the Nation to catastrophe on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

“So, they’re looking after the land,” Grass said. “And we have to give offerings so (its) message don’t come negatively.”

Grass didn’t give details about the offerings because of cultural appropriation and Bilagáanas borrowing and taking spiritual songs and prayers from the Diné.

“It’s good to see them,” Grass added. “(People) need to leave it alone. The medicine people have the proper prayers for that and (lead) them toward north.”

Climate change

The A. alces shirasi – the Shiras moose – is the smallest subspecies of the moose family.

The Shiras have smaller antlers and body size, such as the one in Diné Bikéyah.

“I do have staff monitoring it,” said Gloria Tom, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Tom said her team attributes the moose’s appearance to climate change.

“The scientific explanation is climate change,” Tom explained, “because there have been (moose) sightings in Bloomfield, (New Mexico), prior to this one coming down here to the Shiprock area.”

There were sightings in Aztec as well.

Climate change could dramatically alter ecosystems by changing temperature and precipitation, according to the Ontario government website. And moose may be affected by heat stress, decreased reproductive fitness, parasites, and changes in habitat quality.

Moose are adapted to extreme cold and deep-snow conditions, said Brent Powers, zoologist for Fish and Wildlife’s Navajo Natural Heritage Program, which works with the rare and endangered species.

The moose become stressed when summer or winter temperatures rise above a certain threshold, said Powers.

“The moose along the Rocky Mountains are really confined to the Rockies – more mountainous terrain,” explained Powers, who studied moose in New Hampshire as part of his master’s research work. “The areas here in our Navajo Nation, in the Chuska Mountains and along the San Juan River valley, don’t really provide that sort of habitat they need or use. It’s just too dry and hot.

“They’re cold-adapted,” Powers said. “They cope with deep snow and extended periods of cold through the winter and we really don’t have that down here nor do we have the woody/frost habitat that they need.”

The Fish and Wildlife biologist speculated that the moose is infected by chronic wasting disease, or CWD, because it is behaving abnormally, said Tom.

Tom said CWD affects moose and other cervids such as elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. The disease affects the nervous system and creates distinctive brain lesions. Because there is no treatment for CWD it is fatal to the animals that contract it.

Tom said she and her team have been monitoring the disease for about 15 years. There are no positive CFW samples thus far, even though the disease has been confirmed in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

But there isn’t a real explanation as to why the moose is traveling through Diné Bikéyah, said Tom, adding that a moose was shot in Bloomfield. It’s unclear if this particular moose was traveling with the one that was shot.

“But it seems to be following the (San Juan River) corridor,” she added. “It is a riparian species. It relies heavily on riparian vegetation for food.”

Six-foot moose

Moose are the largest of all deer species, averaging about 6.5 feet at the shoulder and weighing roughly 1,500 pounds, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Even though the Shiras subspecies is the smallest moose in North America, it’s still a large animal, said Powers.

“They range from Alaska to the East Coast, New Hampshire and Nova Scotia, and down to the Rocky Mountains,” Powers explained. “The largest of which are found in Alaska. The Shiras … (are) a little bit smaller – certainly than the ones in Alaska as well as (the ones in) the East Coast.

“Where we are here, all those moose in general, they’re known as ‘woody browser.’ They browse on vegetation,” he added. “A very small proportion of a moose’s diet consists of grass, so they’re generally feeding on things like the new year’s growth.”

David Mikesic, zoologist and manager at the Navajo Nation Zoological and Botanical Park, added that the moose has not been tranquilized nor has it received veterinary care.

“It could be totally independent of – medically going on with the animal,” Mikesic added. “Other than the fact that it’s the mating season. Young male moose and deer and elk, they do strange things this time of year.”


About The Author

Krista Allen

Krista Allen, based in Kaibeto, is the assistant editor of the Navajo Times.

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