Moose once inhabited northern New York in great numbers. But, due to habitat destruction and relentless hunting, they were eliminated during the 19th Century. It’s widely accepted that the last Adirondack moose was an 800-pound cow shot near Raquette Lake in 1861. Two attempts at re-establishing a population by releasing them in Hamilton County, one in 1894 to 1895 and the other in 1902 to 1903, failed.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that moose returned, probably due to reduced logging and an increase in sustainable forest-management practices both in and out of the Adirondack Park. This resulted in the recovery of habitat at a time when range is diminishing due to encroachment by humans in nearby areas, especially Canada.
Records of their breeding began in 1990 and, since 2007, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has been conducting early winter aerial surveys over moose habitat in the northeastern Adirondacks. DEC has also been asking hunters, trappers and the public to report locations and numbers when moose are sighted.
The moose population in New York is now estimated at upwards of 800 and growing. And, since calves generally remain with their mothers for about a year until the mother calves again, and individuals other than adult males sometimes herd together in winter, reports by observers of multiple animals moving together continue to increase.
Unfortunately, moose populations have been declining across much of their southernmost North American range and their fate in many of these areas is in question. While the reasons vary with location, scientists agree that warmer, shorter winters are part of the underlying cause.
Moose amass a considerable quantity of body fat in the months leading up to winter, and when temperatures rise above 23 degrees they must expend substantial amounts of energy just trying to stay cool, which can lead to exhaustion and death.
But changing climate has also impacted moose populations in ways that are less obvious. In western Canada, warmer winter weather has resulted in an epidemic of pine-bark beetles that have wiped out vast expanses of moose habitat leaving moose vulnerable to predators, animal and human. Populations have fallen by as much as 70 percent.
In Minnesota, one herd has dwindled from about 4,000 to less than 50 in just 20 years. Another has declined from approximately 9,000 in 2006 to fewer than 2,800 today.
While scientists in Minnesota believe the increase in mortality is, to some extent, from heat stress resulting in predation, they are also looking at two parasites, brain worms and liver flukes. Both are carried by, but not generally considered harmful to, white-tail deer. Both can be deadly to moose. Researchers have also begun looking at stress-related mortality due to increasing numbers of winter ticks. Because populations have declined so quickly, Minnesota no longer has a moose-hunting season.
In New Hampshire, where milder, shorter winters and less snow have markedly increased the survival rate of winter ticks, moose are being profoundly affected. Their number has plummeted from about 7,500 in 2008 to roughly 4,500 today. Winter ticks have taken an even greater toll on moose in Vermont where, since 2008, the moose population has been cut in half, from roughly 5,000 to an estimated 2,500.
By contrast, in Maine, colder winters and ample snowfall still hold tick populations in check, at least in northern regions. And, even though moose living in southern portions of the state are being impacted, the state’s overall moose population remains stable at more than 75,000.
When their populations are high, tens of thousands of winter ticks can parasitize a single moose. In fact, wildlife biologists have records of animals carrying tick loads of as many as 150,000. Large infestations can result in reduced fertility and reduced growth rates in moose calves. What’s more, anemia and loss of weight and hair (actually hair breaking off at the skin from constant scratching), can be so severe that observers have reported seeing hairless moose.
These animals are known as “ghost moose.” Once a moose loses its winter coat, it will almost always fall victim to hypothermia.
The good news is this. According to DEC, winter ticks have yet to be documented in New York. In fact, it appears that the cause of most known moose mortalities here is collision with motor vehicles.
Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.