Iowa Outdoors: After 49 years, moose returns to Tama County

Retired Iowa conservation officer Bob Mullen, left, and Officer Brett Reece pictured recently with the moose mount at Tama County’s Otter Creek Lake & Park Nature Center. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRETT REECE

Forty-nine years ago a three-year-old bull moose weighing about 1,500 pounds and having an antler spread greater than three feet across was poached in Tama County. That moose is now back and once again calls Tama County home. Anyone old enough who resided here nearly 50 years ago should remember the story well. Let’s take a trip back in time to retell this moose’s story as we approach the 49th anniversary of its occurrence.

It was October 17, 1974 when a Tama County resident, referred to hereafter as the defendant, east of Gilman shot this moose in his cornfield. It was the first time within written history that a wild moose was killed in Iowa. Moose were protected in Iowa in 1974 and still are.

An anonymous tip led to the discovery of this crime and Iowa conservation officers Mike Runyan and Bob Mullen investigated. The defendant was charged with the illegal possession of a protected non-game animal. Mullen, who retired in 2002, was interviewed for this article.

Prior to being poached, this moose was observed in Benton and Tama counties in the vicinity of Belle Plaine, Chelsea, Gilman, Tama and in the Iowa River bottomlands. Mullen first learned about this moose being in Iowa on October 5, 1974. It came into this state from a surrounding state likely to have been Minnesota. As you might well imagine this animal became a local oddity and topic of conversation.

Upon investigating this crime, Mullen and Runyan seized the rack and the meat from this animal from the defendant’s home. The moose head/rack was subsequently mounted by a taxidermist and put on display within the lodge at Springbrook State Park in Guthrie County where it remained for decades until August, 2023.

Our defendant was found guilty on December 26, 1974 after a jury trial presided over by Magistrate George Stein held at the Tama County Courthouse. Mullen, who testified, told me that the courtroom was standing room only as this was a case that held the public’s fascination. The defendant claimed he saw the moose as a threat and was protecting his property when he shot it from his combine. The jury found the defendant guilty after 45 minutes of deliberation.

The defendant was fined $100, assessed court costs, and a judgement of $25 was to be paid to the Iowa Conservation Commission (predecessor to the Iowa DNR). Admittedly, $100 went a lot further in 1974 than it does today, but after this verdict was rendered at least one state senator pushed for legislation to increase the fine associated with this crime to $1,000. If this same violation were to take place today, upon conviction, would cost a defendant $2,765.25.

I learned in August of this year that the future of this moose mount at Springbrook State Park was in jeopardy and it needed to find a new home. So, feeling that this moose’s proper home was right here in Tama County, I contacted the Tama County Conservation Board and asked if they’d be interested in displaying this animal in their nature center. Their answer was an affirmative yes.

If you would like to see this moose for yourself, since August it has been hanging on a wall inside the nature center located at Otter Creek Lake and Park, Toledo. A plaque recounting the events that led to this mount is located underneath the mount itself.

Further details about this incident can be found in the November 6, 1974 edition of the Toledo Chronicle and other papers, some of which can be found at the Tama County Historical Society Museum in Toledo. The museum also has a plaster cast of this moose’s hoof print.

At the time, it was the consensus of the readers of the Toledo Chronicle that this moose killing/poaching story was the number 1 news story of 1974. If you were not here at the time, you now know this moose’s story.