- Courtesy Of Josh Blouin
- Collared moose
Canaan resident Dan Johnson was taking an early spring snowmobile ride six years ago when a moose walked down the trail toward him and stopped. The animal rested its head on a grooming vehicle that was ahead of him on the trail, and Johnson noticed its side was covered with a lumpy mass. The mass was moving.
"At first you couldn't tell what it was," Johnson said. "Then I looked closer, and it was just ticks upon ticks upon ticks, big ones and little ones to tiny ones. It was disgusting."
Moose with masses of ticks have become a familiar sight in recent years for hunters, wildlife biologists and others who spend time in the woods of northern New England. The winter ticks, as they are known, weaken moose to the point where many don't make it through spring.
Biologist Nick Fortin cites these deaths whenever he explains why Vermont will hold an expanded moose hunt in the fall.
It's been almost a decade since New England biologists first warned that the charismatic forest giants were struggling to survive an array of threats, including climate change, habitat reduction and winter ticks.
Vermont has about 2,400 moose, fewer than half of a population that peaked in 2005. About half of them wander Essex County. Biologists say the number has been stable since 2014.
Many of the Vermont moose are in bad shape, underweight, and riddled with ticks and other parasites.
Fortin, who monitors moose health for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and for a study involving several Northeastern states, supports moose hunting. "Intuitively, no, it doesn't make sense," he acknowledged. But he says the coronavirus pandemic makes his reasoning easier to explain.
"People learning about COVID has helped them understand disease ecology and the whole density thing," said Fortin. "With moose, it's a tick, not a virus, but it's the same principle: If you have fewer hosts or you spread your hosts out more — if you socially distance your hosts — the disease or parasite or virus doesn't spread as well."
Winter ticks kill moose in a gruesome manner. They latch on early in the winter and then spend their life cycle attached, feeding on the animal's blood, weakening it so severely that it's more vulnerable to other pests or ordinary stressors, such as habitat change. In recent years, the tick problem has swollen to horror movie proportions. Last spring, Fish & Wildlife released a photo of a moose calf the department said was found dead with 58,000 ticks attached.
When Johnson, the Canaan snowmobiler, saw that the tick-infested moose he had encountered wasn't going to move away, he picked up a stick and started scraping off the ticks, creating a pile of blood "and gray nastiness" in the snow below. He spent 10 minutes or so removing a large patch while the moose stood still. "He was groaning. He was leaning into the stick as I was doing it," he said.
Eventually, the trail groomer waiting to pass the moose said he wanted to get going, and Johnson stopped scraping. The young bull moose walked into the woods. He was missing fur, but "he looked healthy other than the ticks," said Johnson, who sees a lot of moose on the snowmobile trails.
The moose ticks, which don't attach to deer or humans, have a life cycle that works out poorly for moose. Moose calves born in the spring head into the difficult winter months with tiny ticks settled in for the long haul. Fortin said that over the coldest months, the ticks take so much blood that by spring, some calves have to eat enough to replace their entire blood volume within two weeks — at a time when the new growth hasn't come in yet and forage is scarce.
The damage is measured in calf mortality, and it's high: In some areas of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, which have been researching the tick impact since around 2013, more than half of the moose calves born each year have died from acute protein deficiency. Biologists attribute those deaths to winter ticks.
That makes questions about the hunt pretty easy to answer, said Lee Kantar, Maine's moose biologist. Kantar estimated that Maine — with a land area about four times the size of Vermont's — has between 50,000 and 70,000 moose.
"The choice is, as a manager, do you let unfold what we see now, which is these calves trying to make it to their first birthday in May and dying a lingering death by having the blood sucked out of them?" Kantar said. "Or do you choose to have a hunt in the fall where you harvest those animals where they are still in good condition and utilize the meat?"
Vermont made the latter choice this year, awarding 100 permits by lottery, a 45-permit increase over 2020. The state issued no permits in 2019, citing the decline in the moose population.
And the state is also taking part in a large, federally funded study that will enable researchers from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York and Massachusetts to share data.
So far, much of the research, particularly in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, has been based on field observations. Fortin and other biologists have spent a lot of time in recent years sneaking through the woods tracking female moose, or cows, that have been fitted with radio collars, to see whether they have calves.
One day last week, Fortin drove his truck down wooded dirt roads in Maidstone, stopping frequently to raise an antenna above his head trying to catch a "ping" from a moose collar.
- Courtesy Of Kim Hubbard
- Nick Fortin tracking moose
The radio collar led him to a cow bedded down in an area of thick, spongy moss, which makes it easier to move quietly through the dense forest. But as Fortin stepped to within about 20 yards, she stood up and trotted away. He glimpsed her through the trees as she departed, followed by a tall calf almost her size.
The sighting made Fortin's trip a success. But visually observing moose in the woods is an expensive way to collect data.
"We can't continue to monitor moose that way in the future; it's just not feasible in the long term," said Therese Donovan, an assistant leader of the Vermont Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Vermont. During the new project, which started last year, researchers will collect data with motion-activated game cameras and by analyzing fecal and urine samples taken over the winter.
The state will also collect data, including DNA, from all of the moose killed in the hunt this fall.
All this information will be used in a number of ways. For example, UVM moose geneticist Stephanie McKay is using it to assess inbreeding, which she said affects the immune response to winter ticks.
Nobody expects the research project to yield easy answers for the problems that plague the moose. Inbreeding, for example, can't be solved by bringing in new moose from elsewhere; it's risky to import animals that might carry new parasites, Fortin noted.
Sharing regional data might give biologists some answers. New York's 800 or so moose are largely concentrated in the private timberlands of the Adirondack Park, a Vermont-size area where logging produces the browsing areas that sustain them. For reasons unknown, they don't suffer the kind of winter tick infestations seen in Vermont.
"The moose in New York are the nicest-looking, most pristine-looking moose. Gorgeous," Fortin said. "The ones here rub their hair off in the spring because they have so many ticks on them. The ones in New York are not impacted by ticks at all. That's kind of what we're trying to get at with the study."
Some groups oppose the moose hunt, including Protect Our Wildlife Vermont. The group says that the highest number of ticks found on a moose last year was 74. But in that number, Protect Our Wildlife is citing the samples taken when hunters brought in their dead moose to be analyzed; Fish & Wildlife uses the samples to estimate total tick numbers on the moose.
The group also asserts that Fish & Wildlife should try using a tick-killing fungus that UVM researchers have studied in recent years. The fungus has shown some promise in the laboratory but has not yet been put to field trials.
"In 2021, to say you need to kill moose to kill the ticks that are killing the moose is a really unacceptable wildlife management perspective," said Brenna Galdenzi, the president of Protect Our Wildlife. She added that hunting fees help support Fish & Wildlife's $20 million annual budget.
"We know that moose hunting in Vermont is something that brings a lot of money into the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department," she said. The permits cost $100 for Vermont residents and $350 for nonresidents.
Fortin said callers ask the department why the state can't kill the ticks instead of killing moose. But that's difficult, he said. While the state inoculates raccoons against rabies by dropping bait from airplanes, that wouldn't work for moose, which browse on acres of greenery for a good part of the season, making it difficult to direct them to bait. And putting the treatment in targeted feed — or in salt licks, which can be medicated — wouldn't be practical in such a large area, Fortin said.
"How many thousands of salt blocks would you have to put across the landscape to actually have an impact?" he asked.
Longtime Maine hunting guide Hal Blood said the states should be killing more moose to suppress the ticks. He's gone into the woods to look for shed antlers and seen 15 to 20 dead moose in a day, he said.
"They suffer through the whole winter and then just die," he said. "Nature's way is cruel. But it happens because of overpopulation."
The goal of the multistate study is to learn more about the moose and perhaps come up with ways to help them. Fortin's own aim for the Vermont moose is simple: He doesn't want the state's herd to get any larger.
"Our goal is to manage for healthy moose, regardless of how many moose that is," he said. "A healthy moose population is going to be more resilient to pests and parasites and impacts of climate change that we haven't even thought of yet."