The View from Heifer Hill: Moose — Icon of the North Woods


I think it is safe to say that I moved back to Marlboro nine years ago to be in a place where there are moose. The first night back, I camped out in a beaver meadow. When I awoke to find a moose ambling past my campsite the next morning, I felt I had found a wild enough place. I saw fresh moose tracks almost every time I went out, and I had a number of memorable encounters with the moose themselves.

The last moose I saw in these woods was three years ago. I found the moose where neighbors said it would be, for it had been in the same area for many days. Though it appeared healthy, it took no interest in my proximity and did not move when I approached. A few days later I returned and followed its tracks, glad to see that the moose had been moving around. Those tracks were its last, for they led to the spot where the poor beast slid down a bank and collapsed, never to rise again.

That moose probably died from brainworm, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, a nematode commonly found in white-tailed deer. While this parasite seldom causes problems for a healthy deer, in moose it infects the neurological tissue, with fatal results.

Moose are in decline throughout much of their range. Since I moved back to Marlboro, the Vermont moose population has dropped from an estimated 4,800 down to 2,000. There are a few known causal agents, but as with so many species declines, the story is complex.

The winter tick (or moose tick) has arisen as the greatest scourge of Northeastern moose. A single moose may host as many as 70,000 of these blood-sucking passengers, and the ticks spend the whole winter on the moose. On a calf or weakened adult moose, this load can lead to death by anemia and blood loss. In an attempt to rid themselves of ticks, moose will rub off much of their fur. The stress also reduces the amount of time they spend feeding. Moose cows in poor condition bear fewer calves.

New Hampshire is conducting a study of moose longevity and mortality using radio-collared moose. Last winter, 74 percent of the collared moose calves were killed by ticks, as were 5 percent of the adults.

Moose are adapted to thrive in snowy northern landscapes, and only snowy northern landscapes. The southern boundary of the moose range correlates roughly to areas where the average January temperature is below 20-degrees F. Brainworm and winter ticks are becoming bigger problems as the climate warms. Shorter winters with less snow favor white-tailed deer population growth. Warmer summers and a snow pack that melts early favor the survival and reproduction of winter ticks. Warmer temperatures in the summer also stress moose directly, sending them into winter with decreased vigor.

Now when I go out into my woods and am lucky enough to find moose tracks, I am no longer assured that all is well in the world; instead, I feel worried for that moose's welfare.

I often wonder what it will take for humanity to acknowledge that we have taken too much from the Earth, that we must begin the serious and urgent work of reining ourselves in. Perhaps the plight of moose, beloved icon of all that is wild, will provide that catalyst? I hope it will not be too late.

Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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