John Harrigan: Warming trend and ticks spelling trouble for moose

JOHN HARRIGAN April 21. 2013 12:07AM

Not so very long ago, in my lifetime in fact, and I'm not that old (it says here), New Hampshire's moose were almost gone. Due to a number of factors - subsistence hunting, sport hunting, ignorance of population dynamics, devastation of habitat - the moose count during my growing-up years, the '50s, was 15 to 75, depending on your sources. But who can count moose?

In the interim, New Hampshire's moose management program has been one of the most talked-about success stories in the country.

Now New Hampshire's moose are facing new foes. The foes are a warmer climate and ticks. Warm weather stresses moose, built for cold climes. And warm weather, and especially milder winters, favor the multiplication of ticks. Ticks of several varieties are now being seen in parts of New Hampshire where they've never been seen before.

Yearling cow moose have to be at least 440 pounds in the fall to produce calves the next spring, and need to be 550 pounds the next fall to produce spring twins. In recent years, their weights have been falling short.

New Hampshire is not alone here. All across the northern states, cow weights are declining. Northern Maine and (maybe) far-northern New Hampshire seem to be exceptions.

There can be as many as 160,000 ticks on one lone hapless moose.

The loss of blood to ticks can bring a moose to its knees. More ticks have been surviving winters because winters have been getting milder. Visit a checking station during moose season and ask any biologist or helper weighing and checking moose for age and general condition, as I have and anyone from the public can too, and you'll get a quick education about what the average moose hauls around in its pelt. It is not a pretty sight.

Lately I've been hearing from hunters who, concerned about the moose population, would rather see the hunting season shut down outright than risk the long-term health of the herd. On the face of it, this is a heartening thing.

Not so very long ago, a century ago, not a long time in the long scheme of things, hunters would have been crying, "Damn the resource, full speed ahead." The turnaround is a manifestation of how far we have come since Theodore Roosevelt and other giants of conservation led the way into a new era of protection, preservation and enhancement.

I've known Kris Rhines, who runs Fish and Game's moose management program, for 35 years or so. She says that while the moose in the White Mountains region and south are feeling the effects of warming climate enough to cause concern, moose in northern Coos are doing fairly well. "There's a decline," she says, "but it's happened before."

The number of moose permits from the lottery will be adjusted, as always, according to other factors affecting the moose population. There is a time lag here because people have already sent in their money to enter the lottery, and the permit-holders are announced in the spring. Kris says that any necessary adjustments can be made for the following season.

What about lacing salt-blocks with anti-tick ingredients and scattering them here and yon? This is a well-meant suggestion, and Kris has received it before, and it might work, but (there's always a but):

"When they need salt the most is in the spring," Kris said. "They tend to ignore salt during summer. Ticks get on them in the fall." So moose might ignore the tick-repellant-laced salt-bocks when they would do the most good.

Finally, there is the often heard complaint that people are not seeing as many roadside moose as in years before. This is a complaint that I often hear, from tourist lodging businesses and from people who have camps, and from people who drive all the way up here from Manchester and Nashua to go cruising for moose-sightings.

Kris says it's because the roadside clearcuts, whose low-growing hardwood saplings and their nutritious buds drew moose, have grown too high for moose to reach, and they have gone on to newer and more remote clearcuts.

The suggestion is that if you want to see moose, get away from the main roads and drive the back roads, or better, put a fanny pack on and take a hike.

However, I've heard from many people who often do just that, get well into the back country, and they say there are just plain fewer moose. And I'm hearing the same from the guys who are out there full time, the loggers and truckers.

There are, Kris agrees, fewer moose, but another way to look at it is that the fewer the moose, the harder it is for ticks to feed and multiply.

"It comes down to whether you want to see a lot of unhealthy moose," she says, "or fewer healthy moose."

Well, Kris is indeed a longtime friend, and I don't want to go against her. But in fact I don't think even she likes the line she's touting. She didn't say that. I'm guessing.

The line I'm hearing, not from Kris, is that Fish and Game cannot refund lottery applicants' money because the department has already spent it. That's hogwash.

Fish and Game should jump through hoops to refund the application money and shut the season down for at least a couple of years.

It's the right thing for the resource, which is what we've been saying for more than a century is what we're all about.

John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576, or email at

John Harrigan

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