By Tom Eastman
CONWAY — “We don't want to follow Minnesota with a disappearing moose population. Our moose are important to our culture and economics, especially in the North Country. It would be a shame.”
So said Eric P. Orff, wildlife consultant to the National Wildlife Federation and a N.H. Fish and Game Department commissioner for Merrimack County, speaking this week about a new study that the state is undertaking to determine some of the factors that are behind the decline in New Hampshire's moose herd.
Wood ticks, brain worm, warmer winters and hotter summers...
As Orff and others note, the state's moose herd is facing a triple whammy from those factors (and that's not even counting the threat individual moose receive from the state's annual, controversial-to-some fall hunt).
New Hampshire's moose population stood at more than 7,500 five years ago — it's now estimated to be at about just 4,500, according to Orff and state moose project leader Kristine Rines of Fish and Game.
The state will spend nearly $700,000 in a four-year moose collaring and tracking project designed to help Fish and Game officials determine why the state’s moose population is declining at such a rapid rate.
The study will be federally funded through guns and ammunition tax revenue and conducted by Fish and Game in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire.
“We did a mortality study 10 years or so ago, as we were concerned that the winter wood ticks were starting to make significant inroads. That study determined that was the cause of major mortality of moose in the North Country,” said Rines, a 30-year Fish and Game veteran moose biologist in an interview from her Concord office July 30. “But since then,” she said, “we are seeing a reduction in moose reproduction and weights. Based on studies going on elsewhere, we have become concerned about additional factors which we believe are coming into play. We want to get back out there and see what may have changed in the past 10 years and see if there's anything we can do.”
Moose in N.H.
New Hampshire writer Eric Aldrich in a recent story for the Concord Monitor wrote that in Minnesota, wildlife officials recently called off the state’s moose 2013 hunting season, citing a 35 percent drop of moose numbers from the previous season and a 65 percent decline since 2008. They stressed that moose-hunting is not the cause of this precipitous decline.
The decline here in the Granite State has impacted New Hampshire's moose numbers in every part of the state, noted Rines, except in the far northern area of Pittsburg.
Some regions, including the White Mountains and the central Lakes Region where moose once held strong numbers, have seen steep declines.
While moose were once abundant in New Hampshire, their numbers declined as humans hunted them down in the early 1800s and cleared the land. By 1898, only 13 moose remained in the Granite State.
As the state's forests returned, and Fish and Game came into being, beavers were protected, and so were moose. The beavers provided aquatic environments that were conducive not only to them, but also to other wildlife, including moose.
The numbers started to come back, but only some, with moose beginning to be seen as far south as Concord in the 1960s, and statewide by the '70s. Their numbers increased in the 1980s and into the 2000s before the decline of the past five years, according to Orff and Rines.
Retired Fish and Game officer Henry Mock of Jackson has seen the changes.
“When I started as a warden in this district in 1965,” notes Mock, who later served as a state representative after his retirement, “moose were pretty scarce, and I remember that if anyone who shot a moose illegally it was a major, serious offense. Then, they really seemed to blossom.”
Clear-cutting 15 years ago on the national forest seemed to help the moose population by providing good browse for their diets, according to Mock.
In June 1991, prior to Mock's retirement later that year, there were an average of 250 vehicle and moose collisions in the state. Mock says he was instrumental in bringing about the “Brake for Moose” signs along the highways to warn motorists about potential moose collisions, with the first sign erected at the Conway end of the Kancamagus Highway.
According to Rines, the last six years the statewide vehicle kill has averaged 183. In 2012, she said, 171 moose were killed on the roads.
Moose hunt affected
In response to the herd's then recovery, the state initiated an annual moose hunt in 1988 as a management and revenue producing tool. That year, 75 permits were issued for a three-day hunt in the North Country. The permits peaked at 675 in 2007 to just 275 in 2012, as the number of permits has been decreased because of the decline in the herd in recent years.
Controversial to many animal rights activists, especially given the herd's decline, the 2013 hunt will take place Oct. 19-27, and again, with 275 permits issued. Among the local lottery winners are John Baltz and Derek Boisvert of Freedom; David Lovequist of Eaton; Bruce Poore of Madison; and several hunters from nearby Berlin.
“We set the season biannually,” said Rines, “so we will set it again the upcoming session which begins in January and ends in April, so we will be looking at things again and see what the herd can support. The winter tick impact every year is a different story so it will be interesting.
Although the population of New Hampshire's herd has declined in recent years, Rines says compared to some areas of the country, New Hampshire “still has a pretty good moose population.”
“The density in the Connecticut Lakes region north of Route 26 is a little over two moose per square mile, and it's about one and a half moose per square mile in the region north of Routes 3 and 2. In the White Mountains, it's a little less than one per square mile, and it's a tenth of moose per square mile in the Lakes,” said Rines.
Her view was shared by Orff in his July 31 interview with The Sun.
“The good news is we are not out of moose. Kristine's estimate of 4,500 puts the herd at a still good rate, although not robust,” said Orff. “As for the hunt, last year's success rate for hunters was 64 percent, which was the lowest rate since the hunt started in 1988. Hunters are seeing and killing fewer deer.”
He said the success rate was in the 70-percent range over the last decade, except for 67 percent in 2007; 65 percent in 2009, and 64 percent in 2012.
Animal rights activists think moose hunting is just wrong, especially in times of a declining population.
“To summarize my concern,” says Montana-based biologist Anja Heister of the Defense of Animals international animal rights and rescue organization, “is that in a time of immense uncertainty, where the moose population or any species is declining by 30 percent or whatever with moose, we should definitely stop the hunting of these animals. We don't know what kind of mortality the hunting actually causes, the stress. The population is already weakened, and yet we keep hunting these animals! I find that outrageous. Here in Montana and elsewhere, we keep hunting these animals. They are managed as a game species to be killed, and that is the bottom line.”
Her concerns are shared by local animal rights advocate Laura Slitt of Bartlett. “It's important to understand the perspective of how humans interfere with habitat and climate, and how we have mismanaged the species to the point where we are causing more harm than good,” said Slitt.
From the field
New Hampshire has more moose than many states, but the numbers are still down from the past five years, note observers.
“I think we have fewer moose, no question. We have far less sightings, and the moose we see at the moose stations during the hunt in fall are not as numerous or as large as they were during the heyday 10 to 15 years or so ago,” notes local Fish and Game conservation officer Sgt. Brian Abrams of Madison. “We started seeing fewer the last four to five years. The average person used to be able to see them pretty easily on the Kanc [Kancamagus Highway]; now it's not as easy to see one.”
Climate plays a big role in size, notes Rines, the state's moose project leader.
When temperatures get high in summer, she said, moose seek shady shelter and settle down; they don't feed. By not feeding, as nature writer Eric Aldrich and Rines assert, their well-being declines, and they become susceptible to disease and parasites. Female moose below 450 pounds affected by the weight loss are less likely to give birth to twin calves — the norm for healthy cows — and are more likely to have one calf or none at all.
Malnourished calves due to those high temperatures and heavy tick infestations are also seen as easier prey for predators, such as the black bear.
“Kris Rines says that the mortality rate for moose calves may be as much as 100 percent after mild winters and early springs,” said Orff.
Warmer winters lead to more wood ticks, which leads to a weaker moose population. Conversely, colder winters hurt the tick onslaught and aid the moose while impacting such wildlife as deer more.
“The winters that we need to have are ones that come at a reasonable time, with snow in December, or even mid-November. The snow needs to hang on longer,” said Rines. “Even when you have snow that comes later but leaves earlier, that makes for good conditions for the ticks: the ticks can stay longer on the moose, and when they start falling off in April, if there is no snow, that makes for better conditions for the ticks to lay their eggs on the ground. If there is snow on the ground when they fall off, they [the ticks] don't generally survive. So, the more snow and longer you have it is a better thing for the moose.”
Climate change, whether human-induced or due to purely natural factors, therefore impacts the moose as well as the rest of the natural world.
“We know there is an increase in the winter tick population and that several really bad winter tick years can cause high moose mortality,” said Rines. “This study is going to be looking at are there other factors out there than just winter ticks. We will be asking what we can do to help, aside from managing ourselves in a way that impacts the weather.”
She said moose often develop a mangy fur condition, due to the tickload — as many as 100,000 to 150,000 ticks can attach themselves to a beleaguered moose.
“The ticks get on a moose in the fall and take a small blood meal, then they nap through the winter on the moose. They awake in spring and begin actively feeding. That's when they do the most damage to these animals. What seems to be happening,” said Rines, “is even if they don't kill them outright, they drive the moose down to such a low physiological level that they have a tough time coming back and gaining weight so they can be reproductive in the fall.”
Rines added that if New Hampshire saw two “really good winters in a row” with lots of snow and cold, that would no doubt lead to good adult moose sex relations.
“If we had that, and good habitat, we would probably see dramatic increases in reproduction rates and hopefully in weights, so we could be sitting pretty,” said Rines.
In a story reported by the Union Leader of Manchester, at a July 24 governor and executive council meeting, Fish and Game commissioner Glenn Normandeau said the nearly $700,000 study involves helicopters, expensive equipment and highly skilled personnel. Using helicopters and net-guns, the wildlife biologists capture and radio-collar cow and calf moose, and then use GPS technology to track their movements.
He reportedly said moose represent a major economic impact to the state.
“There’s a lot of concern because the economic value to the state of moose is in the tens of millions,” he said. “Just the whole moose-watching thing is huge, and we’re concerned. They are coming under stress from climate, or what we believe to be climate. We are trying to find out if that is really the case and if there is anything we can do about it.”
Councilor Debora Pignatell, D-Nashua, questioned the amount of the $695,000 study, but eventually, the contract was unanimously approved by the five-member council.
In background material prepared for the council, the Fish and Game Department stated that "moose are arguably the most important wildlife species in New Hampshire from both social and economic perspectives."
Normandeau said the state is trying to avoid the fate of eastern Minnesota, where the moose population has disappeared in the past decade. "It's completely gone," he said. "And other areas are experiencing similar declines while other areas are doing well. We're trying to figure out what is going on, and if there are things we can do, long-term, to ensure we have moose in the future."
State officials don't have exact numbers, but say that sightings of moose are way down statewide. Ted Walski, a Fish and Game biologist, recently told the Keene Sentinel that sightings are down 20 to 30 percent in recent years.
The state's largest land mammals average about 1,000 pounds and stand 6 feet at the shoulder.
"We also have some disease issues going on," Normandeau told the council. "We are really trying to accurately find out what is going on in the field, and there is no other way than tracking them. I've been educated on the process it takes to bring the animals down and collaring them without injury. It is an expensive process."
Rines said in neighboring Maine, the moose population has seen an increase in lung worm.
“We didn't have that in our initial study, so we want to see if that has increased in the years since,” said Rines.
“The bottom line,” she said, “we want to see why baseline mortality rates have increased.”
Rines and Orff agree that moose are fascinating mammals.
Said Rines, “It absolutely makes my heart lift to watch a moose trot through a clearcut. They are so graceful and powerful, it is amazing.”
“They are such a part of our culture,” said Orff, who is a retired wildlife biologist for Fish and Game.
Their sentiment is shared by local Moose Safari Bus Tours operator Elwyn Wheaton, who operates two coaches near Depot Street in North Conway, and by ATV moose tour operators in Gorham and Berlin (Jericho Motorsports in Berlin, 752-7424, and Northeast Snowmobile and ATV Rentals in Gorham, 466-1700).
“This is my seventh year operating tours,” said Mose Safari's Wheaton. “We lost 10 moose last August and fall in collisions, so yes, there are fewer, but the good news is we've done 50 tours since Memorial Day, and sometimes we've done it by the skin of our teeth, but we've seen at least one moose on every tour. ”
He said his clients — mostly from southern New England — are driven by a wish to see moose. “Roughly half have never seen a moose before. The others want to see one again,” said Wheaton.
“People like to see the moose. It's really a hit-and-miss type of thing when it comes to sightseeing. We operate ATV tours in Jericho State Park,” said Northeast Snowmobile and ATV Rentals' Ray Bergeron. “But in winter, for our snowmobile business, I ride to work early in the morning, and I often come across two to six at a time. It can be a bit scary coming around a corner — up here, we call them 'swamp donkeys.’ ”