Imagine you are deep in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, cold and sore on the hunt for a once in a lifetime opportunity. You hear a crash in the brush and call out with a low pitched grunt. Standing just in front of you is the moose you’ve been waiting for. But peering through the pines you see, not the bull you had hoped for, but a sickly animal, its hide rubbed bare, blackened with ticks and in poor condition.
For rural New Englanders, the moose is a cultural icon and a symbol of wilderness. In a remote area where tourism contributes $250 million every year, wildlife is a lifeline for local economies. Hunting permits bring in additional revenue, peaking at $410,000 in 2007.
But today, moose numbers are declining and so is the money. The majority of moose populations and recreational opportunities across the species’ southern range are now decreasing. The same declines in hunting and wildlife viewing experience are happening in Vermont and Minnesota too.
Already in 2013 Minnesota cancelled moose hunting. New Hampshire and Vermont have reduced permit allocations. Even Maine has reduced antlerless tags after a bad winter in 2014.
Winter tick outbreaks are becoming more common. Diseases associated with these ticks are a known cause for dropping moose numbers and health. Despite quality habitat, these factors add to winter stress and predation to be overwhelming for most calves and some adult moose. New Hampshire’s moose population has decreased nearly 50%, from 7,500 to 4,000, in less than a decade.
This trend is occurring across southern moose country, and the reason why the University of New Hampshire and the NH Fish & Game are teaming up. Research supported by SCI Foundation is investigating the cause and rate of calf mortality, recruitment success, and cow productivity.
So far the project has captured 71 moose, fitted with radio collars for monitoring. Captured moose are field tested for tick density, body condition, general health and nutrition. Of these individuals, 21 calf mortalities have been recorded; many with severe weight loss, tick infestations and disease.
The average tick per moose rate is unbearable for many. Infested calves suffer from chronic blood loss that turns into acute anemia. During peak tick season, daily blood loss can be 27%-64% of a calf’s total blood volume. This energy loss corresponds with late winter when browse intake does not meet metabolic needs.
From 2014 to 2015, calf survival remained steady, but calving and twinning rates lowered substantially. These results reflect the negative effects of repeated years of heavy winter tick load, leaving moose in poor condition through the winter with less chance of survival and fewer resources for calving in the spring. Winter tick infestation is clearly driving the population change.
This research, though discouraging in its results, is a high priority for guiding moose management. Armed with this science, the state’s big game management plan can be refined with direct implications for the social and economic well-being of northern New Hampshire. Research will continue through 2017 as part of a larger statewide project to estimate total moose population. Similar approaches could be taken across moose range in Vermont and Minnesota, providing hope for a species in distress and bringing their numbers, beauty and economic value back to moose country.
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