PORTSMOUTH — The state will spend nearly $700,000 in a moose collaring and tracking project designed to help Fish and Game officials determine why the state's moose population is declining at such a rapid rate.
The Executive Council unanimously approved the study by wildlife experts from the University of New Hampshire on Wednesday, but not before Executive Councilor Debora Pignatell, D-Nashua, raised questions about the $695,000 contract.
"It looks like we're spending $700,000 to track moose. Does that sound like a lot of money to you?" she asked Glenn Normandeau, executive director of the Fish and Game Department.
Normandeau estimated that the moose population in the state is 4,500 at this point, which is considered a low number.
"There's a lot of concern because the economic value to the state of moose is in the tens of millions," he said. "Just the whole moose-watching thing is huge, and we're concerned. They are coming under stress from climate, or what we believe to be climate. We are trying to find out if that is really the case and if there is anything we can do about it."
Normandeau said the four-year project, financed primarily by federal funds, involves helicopters, expensive equipment and highly skilled personnel.
Using helicopters and net-guns, the wildlife biologists capture and radio-collar cow and calf moose, and then use GPS technology to track their movements.
State officials don't have exact numbers, but say that sightings of moose are way down statewide.
Ted Walski, a Fish and Game biologist, recently told the Keene Sentinel that sightings are down 20 to 30 percent in recent years.
The state's largest land mammals average about 1,000 pounds and stand 6 feet at the shoulder.
They are hunted in October for nine days through a state lottery that this year granted permits to 275 people from a pool of 13,000 applicants.
"We also have some disease issues going on," Normandeau told the council. "We are really trying to accurately find out what is going on in the field, and there is no other way than tracking them. I've been educated on the process it takes to bring the animals down and collaring them without injury. It is an expensive process."
In background material prepared for the council, the Fish and Game Department stated that "moose are arguably the most important wildlife species in New Hampshire from both social and economic perspectives."
Normandeau said the state is trying to avoid the fate of eastern Minnesota, where the moose population has disappeared in the past decade.
"It's completely gone," he said. "And other areas are experiencing similar declines while other areas are doing well. We're trying to figure out what is going on, and if there are things we can do, long-term, to ensure we have moose in the future."
Other council votes
In other action, the council voted to:
• Confirm Perry Plummer to continue as director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, after applauding his recent response to flooding in various parts of the state.
• Approve a $1.5 million contract with a Boston consulting firm to create a computerized network that will verify eligibility for state assistance by cross-checking applicant information with databases around the country to eliminate duplication and deter fraud.
• Authorized the sale of state-owned land and buildings at 247-249 Pleasant St., Concord, to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic for $900,000. The land is adjacent to property the clinic already owns.