Rare moose sighting delights passersby

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WEST DUMMERSTON — The young bull moose that attracted a herd of tourists near the Dummerston Covered Bridge off Route 30 over the holiday weekend has vanished like the leaf peepers.

And that's probably a good thing and a sign of the moose's good health.

The moose, which exhibited double-pronged antlers, spent the weekend either in the West River, downstream from the famous covered bridge, or across Route 30 at the former Maple Valley ski area, and attracted a lot of attention from tourists and locals.

Cedric Alexander, the moose project leader for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said Tuesday that he hadn't been informed about the West River moose, but that all of the state's game wardens had specific protocols to follow when encountering moose that are ill or in distress. It's also rutting season for the moose, he said.

Alexander, who is based at the Fish and Wildlife's office in St. Johnsbury, said the greatest number of moose are in Essex County, which is part of the Northeast Kingdom, the most rural part of the state, and he estimated only a couple of hundred moose live in Windham County, and most likely in the foothills of the Green Mountains.

He said the state's moose population has dropped sharply in the past decade, so much so that the state has only issued 13 moose-hunting permits for 2018, bulls only. Not so long ago, he said, the state issued 1,000 hunting permits for the state's largest mammal. The state's moose population hit a high of about 5,000 animals in the early 2000s, but since then, the population has fallen to about 1,650.

The moose hunting season this year is limited to two wildlife management areas in the Northeast Kingdom, he said. Archery season ran from Oct. 1 through Oct. 7, and rifle season is Oct. 20 through Oct. 25.

Alexander said he is regularly called by game wardens who have had to humanely kill an animal that exhibits the behavior of brain worm, which can kill the animal. He said he removes the skull cap to confirm the presence of the brain worm infection, but he said the macroscopic inspection is "often fruitless."

He said that southern Vermont moose are more susceptible to brain worm because of the higher presence of white-tailed deer, which are the host of the brain worm. But unlike their fellow ungulates, the brain worm is shed by the deer through their feces, only to be picked up by a snail, which the moose ingest.

Where there are more deer, there is more of a chance that the moose will pick up the infection, he said.

Brain worm disease is often called "circling disease" since the infection affects one of the hemispheres of its brain, and causes the moose to lose its sense of balance. "It ends up going in circles," he said.

He said the brain worm infection eventually leads the moose to lose its fear of humans. It will also lead to paralysis.

"The game wardens know the protocol for making the assessment," he said. Game warden Kelly Price, who covers the Dummerston area, was off-duty on Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Alexander said Vermont had lost its moose population for about 140 years, as it disappeared from the Green Mountains around 1830 and only returned in the 1970s, he said. The moose likely migrated from northern New Hampshire and Maine.

The moose were protected in 1896 by the Vermont Legislature, along with deer, as game laws first came into effect, he said.

He said the burgeoning tick population has decimated the moose herd, and he said the ticks are able to thrive because of the state's warming climate, and extended warm weather.

"Because the tick problem has become so severe, a lot of the calves are not making it through their first winter," Alexander said. In addition, the moose cows are underweight because of the ticks, and produce fewer viable calves.

He said the tick "scourge" is not widespread across the entire state, but where there are more moose — in the Northeast Kingdom — the tick population has "exploded."

Alexander said a case earlier this summer on Lake Champlain involving a moose which drowned in the lake was likely a cause of brain worm. People had speculated on social media that a crowd of people on shore prevented the animal from climbing out, forcing it back into the lake.

In good health, he said, moose are very strong "and can swim a long ways."

Meanwhile, a dispatcher at the Vermont State Police Westminster barracks said they hadn't received any calls about the moose on Tuesday, and at the West Dummerston Irving gas station/mini-mart, a short distance from where the moose was seen over the holiday weekend, a store employee said there hadn't been any sightings either.

People should keep a safe distance from moose, he said. "It's rutting season now and they can be aggressive," he said. People should not go up and try and pet them, he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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