Last spring, a moose wandered through my part of town, visiting some neighbors’ apple trees, swimming in the pond, walking through downtown Lake Luzerne before strolling off through the woods.
It caused a lot of excitement in the area, but no one knew where it ended up — Queensbury? Warrensburg? Vermont?
In September, a moose spent a day basking on a lawn in Halfmoon. Mechanicville’s Sandy McBride got some good photos, and shared them with The Gazette.
That moose, a young bull, spent a few days wandering around Halfmoon, Mechanicville and Clifton Park before a team from the Department of Environmental Conservation decided it would be safer to tranquilize him and move him further north, somewhere in the Adirondacks. The DEC was concerned that the moose was getting too close to the Northway, and wanted to prevent an accident.
The moose population has been growing in New York state, up to an estimated 800-1,000 animals. The DEC says the numbers are hard to track, since moose wander, from New York into Canada and Vermont and back again.
Spotting a moose is still pretty exciting. The massive creatures with their soft, curved noses, huge heads and long legs are a rare treat to see. Even rarer to see a bull, like the one in Halfmoon, with a nice rack of antlers.
Unfortunately, moose sightings might be getting rarer.
In Minnesota and Montana, in British Columbia and New Hampshire, moose populations are dropping, and scientists have not figured out why. A recent article in The New York Times suggested part of the problem is parasites — an increase in ticks in the Northeast, and brain worms and liver flukes in the Midwest.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that the New Hampshire moose population in recent years has dropped from 7,000 to 4,600. In the past 20 years, Montana’s moose population has fallen 40 percent and in Wyoming, 75 percent. In Minnesota, moose are down by 50 percent — just since 2000. “Only Maine has seen an increase in its moose population, with some 75,000 animals living within its borders,” the paper reported.
Minnesota’s declining moose population led to the Department of Natural Resources canceling the 2013 moose hunting season. The DNR is studying the problem, fitting moose with radio collars to get more accurate readings of their locations, and to find them when they die. Apparently moose decay rapidly after death because of their high fat content and their thick fur, an effective insulator. If they are not found in the first couple of days, it’s too late for a necropsy.
That thick, insulating fur leads to another theory on what is killing moose. Winters in the upper Midwest and Northeast are not as severe as they used to be, and some scientists speculate that the moose are overheating in the winter, and weakening to the point that they become more susceptible to disease.
The warmer winters also seem to be contributing to the parasite problem. In New Hampshire, for example, the tick population has exploded, and wildlife biologists there say that between 30,000 and 150,000 ticks can be found on a single moose. The blood suckers can kill the moose, slowly, by causing blood loss and anemia and by destroying the animal’s protective fur. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department last year teamed with researchers from the University of New Hampshire to study the problem.
The tick population in upstate New York has also exploded, and I can see that firsthand at my home. When I first moved to the Southern Adirondacks 25 years ago, we routinely had a week each winter when temperatures dipped to 20-below zero, low enough that a lot of parasites are killed. No cockroaches, no ticks.
We haven’t seen temps that low in years, and while we remain cockroach free, my dog is still bringing home a tick a day from our morning walks. All spring and summer, we were pulling off deer ticks and dog ticks, and right until our first frost Wednesday, we were still finding deer ticks on her.
Out in Minnesota, where the moose parasites are the horrific sounding brain worm and liver fluke, the warmer winters and their effect on co-hosts are also considered major factors. Those two parasites depend on snails for part of their life cycles, snails that are more abundant now that the swamplands are freezing for far less of the year, according The New York Times piece.
A report by Minnesota Public Radio calls the reasons for moose die-off complicated. A rising deer population could be causing a spread of parasites, especially brain worm. The fact the Minnesota’s average temperatures have risen by 11 degrees in the past 40 years could be creating myriad problems for moose, MPR said.
We are lucky to still have moose around here. Maybe researchers will discover the reasons, and the cure, for moose deaths all over northern North America. Or maybe we’ll have to start traveling farther and farther north to spot a moose.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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