Moose migrating south and west through the Rocky Mountains are finding excellent habitat and few predators, as their numbers continue to rise.
Public awareness and enhanced protection are only helping population's flourish.
Now, the moose are giving back.
Mackay, wedged between the White Knob Mountains and the Lost River Range along the Big Lost River, northeast of Sun Valley, is in the heart of moose country. Located in Custer County, which is 96 percent federal land, it's also in the middle of nowhere.
"Mackay doesn't benefit from tourists like (in Sun Valley)," said Marty Orwig, a Mackay resident.
The small town of about 1,000 people is under constant financial stress. Jobs and opportunities are few, but moose aren't. It's estimated that about 100 of the long-legged browsers—the largest member of the deer family—inhabit the river bottoms and foothills surrounding Mackay. Moose have been known to roam its Main Street like in a scene from "Northen Exposure." Warning signs for moose crossing zones are prominently displayed, complete with flashing lights, along U.S. Highway 93 that bisects the Big Lost Valley.
About five years ago, Orwig, who's always looking for ways to boost Mackay's economy, realized she was sitting on a virtual gold mine. Encouraged by Custer County Commissioner Lin Hintze and Ketchum postmaster John McDonald, she created the North American Moose Foundation, and located its headquarters in Mackay. Last December, the foundation celebrated its fifth anniversary in Jackson, Wyo.
"It's fledgling but it's growing rapidly, and doing some really good things in the community," said Dale Toweill, trophy species coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the supervisor of the state's moose program. "I'm a big supporter."
The foundation seeks to promote the species, educate the public, conserve habitat and promote moose hunting and viewing. Vince Crichton, an authority on moose and the foundation's Canadian vice president, said it's important "for hunters and non-hunters to partner with us, to make the organization strong, and to make sure we have the resources for future generations to enjoy moose."
The foundation also wants to give back to Mackay.
A museum, called the Moose Center, is expanding in the heart of town, and according to the foundation's Web site, "promises to be the premier moose educational center in North America."
The foundation also seeks to provide a brighter future for Mackay's youth, offering internships to local high school students. The students can focus on a particular area of interest, including writing articles for the foundation's newsletter, grant writing, and habitat projects. All receive class credit and payment for work conducted outside school hours.
In 2004, the foundation provided $2,000 in college scholarships to three student interns.
"It's marvelous," Orwig said. "The program is giving these kids a leg-up in life."
Hintze said he hopes the foundation will turn Mackay into a legitimate tourist attraction in the future.
"I have to give a lot of credit to Marty," he said. "She's done a great job."
The North American Moose Foundation Web site is www.moosefoundation.org.