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Experts Worry About Health of Granite State Moose Herd

Short winters drive up tick population

An image shows the stages of a moose's hair loss due to winter ticks. The winter tick is a different species from the deer or dog tick and can number in the thousands on an afflicted moose. An effect on moose by ticks is hair loss.

Dan Bergeron / NH Fish and Game

An image shows the stages of a moose's hair loss due to winter ticks. The winter tick is a different species from the deer or dog tick and can number in the thousands on an afflicted moose. An effect on moose by ticks is hair loss. Dan Bergeron / NH Fish and Game

Concord — In 1950, New Hampshire was home to just 50 moose. Today, the count is near 5,000, but state biologists fear that climate change — by way of winter ticks and other parasites — is threatening the herd.

“Shorter winters are a problem for moose because they give ticks a leg up,” said Kristine Rines, moose project leader for the state Fish and Game Department. “People have to recognize that the (climate) changes we are facing are not just changes in the Arctic. It’s not just polar bears that are going to be affected.”

Hoping to get a better handle on the problem, the Executive Council last week approved a four-year, $695,000 study of the state’s moose population. The herd was last studied in 2006. The work, which will involve putting radio collars on 80 to 100 moose and tracking their reproduction and mortality rates, will be paid for with federal money and coordinated by Fish and Game and the University of New Hampshire.

The results of the study will help the state manage the moose population by adjusting the number of hunting permits issued annually since New Hampshire introduced moose hunting in 1988. Rines said there have been signs of a problem over the last many months: People are seeing fewer moose, and the weights of moose taken by hunters is down.

A hit to the moose population is no small threat to the state’s economy.

According to Fish and Game, wildlife watching — think moose tours — generates $115 million in trip-related expenses annually. The town of Gorham has run moose tours for nearly a decade and uses the money to support its recreation department.

Larry Hartle, who has run Pemi-Valley Moose Tours out of Lincoln for 15 years, charges $30 for adults and $20 for children, and his 44-seat passenger bus is booked solid for July and August. Business remains good, but the tour is an hour longer than it used to because it’s harder to find moose, Hartle said.

“Over the years, we were averaging seven or eight a night,” he said. “Now we average five a night. We’ve had to work harder to find them.”

The drop in numbers has hit the state’s coffers. It took in $14,800 last year from moose hunting applications and permits, a 60 percent drop from the peak in 2007, which was $410,000, according the project proposal.

According to their project proposal, the numbers are down because hunters perceive a decline in the moose population.

New Hampshire’s not alone. Vermont and Minnesota are seeing the same declines; Minnesota canceled moose hunting this year as a result, according to Fish and Game. Maine, meanwhile, appears unaffected.

Rines said because it’s just north enough to still get long, cold winters, which are needed to kill off the winter ticks.

It’s hard to imagine ticks taking down one of the state’s largest animals until you consider the magnitude of the problem.

In the recent issue of New Hampshire Wildlife Journal, Fish and Game biologist Dan Bergeron reported that the average number of winter ticks on a single moose in Alberta, Canada, is 32,000 but can be as much as 150,000, all of them feasting on the moose’s blood.

According to Bergeron, the number of winter ticks is directly related to fall and spring weather. If those seasons are mild and nearly snowless, ticks thrive.

The winter ticks, which are different than deer or dog ticks, attach to the moose, mate and lay eggs, Bergeron wrote in his piece. That cycle repeats and repeats unless the state gets a traditional, long, cold winter.

“If the weather becomes consistently too warm, however, tick numbers are likely to remain high,” Bergeron wrote, “and the Fish and Game Department will be forced to reduce the moose population in order to reduce tick numbers, or to deal with higher annual moose mortality stemming from ticks.”

The four-year study approved by the Executive Council will help gather the information Fish and Game needs to develop its moose management plan.

Rines said the first step will be collaring the moose later this year. She said the department hopes to hire a “capture company” from Wyoming to fly over northern New Hampshire in a helicopter, locate moose and temporarily disable them by shooting either a tranquilizer or net from a gun. Someone will then jump out of the helicopter and collar the moose, she said.

A study can identify the threat to the moose population but not necessarily stop it, Rines said. “It’s hard to convince people of the larger problem” of climate change, she said.

People can tackle climate change or “pray for snow,” she said.