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Biologists helicopter to NH moose as part of study of population health

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 09. 2018 11:35PM
Counting ticks on a blindfolded young moose during an annual population survey. Tick infestations have been the primary cause of increased mortality in New Hampshire's moose population. (NH FISH AND GAME)

The state’s moose population bucked the trend and increased by a few hundred over the past year to an estimated 3,500, according to Fish and Game.

“We did have a break last year (2017) as the summer-fall drought caused many ticks to die, lessening the impacts to moose,” Fish and Game moose biologist Kristine Rines said.

The long-term trend is for ticks, aided by shorter winters, to reduce the moose population, she said.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen mortality as increasing pretty regularly,” Rines said Tuesday. Up to 80 percent of calves just shy of a year have died each year.

This week, a helicopter was shuttling a crew around northern Coos County to use net-guns and tranquilizer darts to sedate about 45 moose cows and calves so they can be fitted with radio-tracker collars as part of the fourth year of a study on moose mortality.

Blood and other samples collected will help assess the health of the moose. The collared animals will be radio-tracked for four years and monitored for as long as the collars keep transmitting.

“Our winters are getting shorter. They’re three weeks shorter than they were 30 years ago,” Rines said. “That gives the ticks the advantage unfortunately.”

A young moose is weighed while tranquilized for application of a radio collar. (NH FISH AND GAME)

A single calf can host an average of 90,000 ticks. “They don’t know how to get rid of them,” Rines said. 

The ticks are also causing problems for reproduction.

“Not as many of our cows (female moose) are able to become pregnant because they can’t gain enough weight to ovulate,” Rines said. “The ticks are sucking the life literally out of them.”

But the moose aren’t going away completely.

“While regional moose populations are indeed facing some serious threats, moose are not on the verge of disappearing from the New Hampshire landscape, but they are declining,” Rines said in a news release about the collaring.

Fish and Game determined ticks were a culprit during a study that ended in 2006.

“The purpose of this study is to see how moose density, cutting practices of trees and weather play a role and how heavy tick loads will be,” Rines said. “That’s why we’re working with Maine and Vermont, so we can get a range of density and weather parameters.”

Moose seem to do better when they are less densely packed together because ticks don’t spread as easily.

“The real solution is to address climate change, but the only other thing at our disposal is to reduce the moose numbers,” Rines said. “We don’t own these animals. That’s a decision the general public will make.”

That decision wouldn’t be contemplated “until we know for sure that’s going to be a benefit to the health of these animals,” Rines said.

During the collaring time, residents of Success, Berlin, Milan, Cambridge, Dummer, Millsfield, Second College Grant, Wentworth’s Location and Errol may notice a low-flying helicopter.

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