It's late Thursday afternoon, and moose biologist Cedric Alexander is battling the weather -- not in the field, but in the classroom. Alexander, the "moose team leader" with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife in St. Johnsbury, is giving a guest lecture at the University of Vermont on the state's moose population. Trouble is, it's a gorgeous spring day, and the students in this resource-management class would rather be doing something -- anything -- outdoors.
By all measures, Vermont's moose are thriving. When Jericho native Alexander graduated from UVM in 1978, he'd never seen one in Vermont. Not surprising. In 1980, the year Alexander started working for Fish and Wildlife, only 200 moose were believed to be living in the state. Today, there are more than 4700.
Those numbers continue to grow, despite record numbers of moose killed on Vermont's roads and highways. Between June 2004 and May 2005, 250 non-hunting moose mortalities were recorded. Collisions with vehicles accounted for 177 of those deaths. May is prime road-kill season for moose.
As Alexander explains how moose are managed, it's apparent spring fever is not the only obstacle in getting through to the students. Back when he attended UVM, far more wildlife-management students were hunters. "I knew my experiences were becoming the minority," he notes. "What has led people to become so far removed from the land and understanding the circle of life and death?"
Today, hunting is an important tool in Vermont's moose management plan, he says. Last year, about 600 moose were "harvested" during the brief season in late October -- producing about 192,000 pounds of moose venison. But Alexander emphasizes that hunting moose is about more than just performing some civic duty to protect car fenders and sugar bushes.
"I always like to point out that we don't hunt moose because it's a tool that we use," he adds. "We hunt moose because it's a very natural interaction between humans and moose. It's how the species evolved."
SEVEN DAYS: How do you spend most of your time as Vermont's moose biologist?
CEDRIC ALEXANDER: It's mostly administering the hunt and monitoring the physical indices from dead moose that come into the check station. I'm sure a lot of people think, "Oh, a moose biologist!" They think Jane Goodall and Marlin Perkins. "What a great job!" We aren't out there with radio collars on moose. There's the possibility for some of that stuff to happen occasionally, but it's mainly done by universities and co-op units and graduate students. We've never had radio collars on moose in Vermont. We have such a small staff that it's really a time thing.
SD: Are there other ways to track moose?
CA: We did make this attempt to do an infrared census in February. That was with helicopters and forward-looking infrared cameras. They've been used successfully to survey deer and moose in fairly open landscapes in New Hampshire and Maine. There, they used fixed-wing aircraft and these ex-military guys who've spent their lives looking for troops and guerillas in the jungle. They're really good at it. We've been interested in having them do similar surveys in Vermont. But they're so totally involved in surveillance of pipelines in Iraq and Afghanistan right now that they can't find any free time to do wildlife surveys.
SD: What's a common myth about moose?
CA: People think they're stupid and they're not. They're quite intelligent. They're not primates, but because they look big and lummoxy, people think they're dumb. They've evolved to do quite well.
SD: Why is May the worst time for moose road kills?
CA: Moose have quite a craving for sodium at the end of the winter. Their body metabolism slows down during the winter to conserve energy. They come down and smell these roadside salt licks, which is where the road salt accumulates, and drink that salty water. It's quite a physiological craving for them. They usually come down at dawn and dusk, and that's the reason why there are so many moose crossing the highway.
SD: Not a good place to be when you're big and brown.
CA: The thing is, our headlights are focused down on the roadway, and a deer's head is so much lower than a moose's. Deer's eyes capture that beam and reflect it back to the viewer. Obviously, the moose is higher, so you don't see those eyes shining back at you. Actually, they have the same reflective layer in their retina as cats, which enables them to see under low-light conditions.
SD: I once heard a guide in Montana say that he'd rather encounter a bear or mountain lion in the wild than a moose, because moose are so unpredictable. Do you agree?
CA: I think that's overstating it. A rutting bull moose that comes charging over to investigate what he thinks might be a challenge, the testosterone is just flowing through them. That's extremely intimidating. The reality is that, if you wave and shout, by the time they get close enough to you, they'll realize this isn't a challenger; it's a human. Most people don't wait for that moment. But you can climb a tree. You can't do that with a mountain lion or a bear.
SD: Have you ever had a bad encounter with a moose?
CA: I haven't. I've had some close encounters with deer, but I've never hit a deer or a moose. I've had some who come over to investigate what I'm doing, but I've never had any intimidating situations. But we've had some physical encounters in Vermont. A woman was hanging up her clothes on an outdoor clothesline. Whether the moose had a reaction triggered by pillowcases flapping in the breeze or whatever, she must have treated the moose as a friendly, half-tame animal. He came up and threw her with his antlers right over his back. She didn't have any serious injuries.
SD: You've had plenty of good experiences around them?
CA: Oh, yeah. They're very impressive and magnificent animals and fun to observe. I've come up on them feeding in snowstorms and they're just wrapping their tongue around the twigs and munching away.
SD: Is there a particularly good spot for the public to view them?
A: The spot that I direct people to is the junction of Notch Pond Road and Route 105 in the town of Ferdinand, which is east of Island Pond by about 10 miles. You're in the heart of high-density moose country -- three moose per square mile -- and there's a major salt lick on the north side of Route 105 across from Notch Pond Road. We're actually trying to site a moose-viewing tower in that location.
SD: What do you recommend if someone encounters a moose in the wild?
CA: You want to give the cows and calves a wide berth because the cow is highly defensive of her newborn calf. That's actually when people have been hurt. That could be any time from May 15 through June 1. The rutting bull is usually September 15 to October 15. Outside those two windows, you're probably at no risk at all. But if you're hiking along the trail on October 16, that doesn't mean the bull moose isn't going to come huffing over to see what the noise is.