People & Places

In This State: For Vermont’s largest mammal, the moose, some tiny, terrible problems

Male moose grow new antlers every year, such as this one in the Victory Wildlife Management area in the Northeast Kingdom just sprouting antlers in velvet. Their racks can grow to over 50 inches by the fall when moose compete to mate.  Photo by Tom Berriman
Male moose grow new antlers every year, such as this one in the Victory Wildlife Management area in the Northeast Kingdom just sprouting antlers in velvet. Their racks can grow to over 50 inches by the fall when moose compete to mate. Photo by Tom Berriman

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.

Bullwinkle is in trouble, and if you want to know why, look to his forest cousin Bambi. This is no cartoon though: It’s a real-life story with an uncertain ending and a lot of concerned viewers watching closely.

The lives of the moose and the deer have become twinned today in a fascinating interplay of habit and habitat, evolution, human intervention and climate change. For hunters and an expert cadre of wildlife biologists, each turn of the year offers new clues and new uncertainties for the future of Alces Canadienses, the fabled eastern moose.

Vermont’s two largest mammals are linked by genetic family, mythic reputation and size, as well as their important role in native American and Vermont culture. And, it turns out, they are linked as well by the pests that plague them, with serious consequences for the moose.

A trophy moose is an impressive animal, such as this one taken this fall by Kevin Rice in Bloomfield. Moose were a staple of native Americans and colonists, valued for their ample supply of sustaining tasty meat.  They are still prized by hunters as well as wildlife watchers, but moose in the Northeast are facing new challenges from pests and a warming climate. Photo courtesy Cedric Alexander
A trophy moose is an impressive animal, such as this one taken this fall by Kevin Rice in Bloomfield. Moose were a staple of native Americans and colonists, valued for their ample supply of sustaining tasty meat. They are still prized by hunters as well as wildlife watchers, but moose in the Northeast are facing new challenges from pests and a warming climate. Photo courtesy Cedric Alexander

The almighty buck, with its noble head and antlers, remains the top mammal in the Vermont pantheon. But in terms of massive size, ungainly looks and ponderous racks that spread more than 50 inches and can weigh 70 pounds – amazingly grown each year – the deer is no match for the moose.

This largely explains why the moose was hunted and extirpated on our landscape by the late 1800s, not to reappear until the 1970s by moose wandering south from Maine after that state decided to ban moose hunting in 1950 to preserve it.

The Algonquin gave the moose its name, which translates to “twig eater,” reflecting the tree browse, bark and aquatic plants that compose its diet. For Native Americans and colonists, the moose was a sustaining savior, providing tasty meat to fend off starvation. Today’s hunters value it no less, whether they come armed with rifles, bows and arrows or increasingly, a pair of binoculars and a hankering just to watch the animal in the wild.

Vermont wildlife biologist and moose expert Cedric Alexander works in his office in St. Johnsbury, where he has spent more than two decades overseeing the species for the Fish & Wildlife Department.  The last few years Alexander has grown concerned about the declining health and future of the moose herd, which is under stress in all of the Northeast. Photo by Andrew Nemethy
Vermont wildlife biologist and moose expert Cedric Alexander works in his office in St. Johnsbury, where he has spent more than two decades overseeing the species for the Fish & Wildlife Department. The last few years Alexander has grown concerned about the declining health and future of the moose herd, which is under stress in all of the Northeast. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

For 23 years, no one has watched moose more closely – from microscopic and skin level to antlers and population – than Cedric Alexander, the wildlife biologist who oversees moose for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. In his more than two decades, he has seen a dizzying ascent and then troubling decline in moose numbers and health.

Both as a good scientist and because he cites past forecasts of the moose’s fate that were wildly off base, he is cautious with predictions. But like many, he wonders if the writing is on the wall – or in the forest.

“There are people that are concerned that the climate is changing so that the moose is not going to find suitable habitat or living environment here,” he says. “If it keeps getting warmer and some of the parasite loads are heavier because of that, who knows.”

A trio of woes that would shock even the biblical character Job are at play. Two are intertwined with lives of the deer: The awful winter tick, and the equally awful brainworm. Both will give any human the willies. Neither harms deer, but they afflict the moose in ways not only pestilential but fatal.

The third factor is our warming climate, which is making life harder for a circumpolar species that evolved to thrive in cold snowy regions and does not handle heat well.

Wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander displays a moose jawbone, one of the many moose parts he has collected as the Fish & Wildlife Department's expert. Alexander's office is full of bones and antlers, as well as biopsied moose parts which he collects for scientific purposes and to show at talks around the state. Photo by Andrew Nemethy
Wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander displays a moose jawbone, one of the many moose parts he has collected as the Fish & Wildlife Department’s expert. Alexander’s office is full of bones and antlers, as well as biopsied moose parts which he collects for scientific purposes and to show at talks around the state. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

If you want a walking Wikipedia of the moose, not to mention the threats that assail it, then Alexander is your man. In his spacious and jam-packed office in St. Johnsbury, he has vials of moose ovaries and ticks in all life stages, boxes of jawbones and antlers, teeth and other items that he brings on show and tells. He has every chart imaginable, from a tally of the just-finished hunt this year – he’s counted 147 so far, about as predicted – to how many moose have been killed by hunters since seasons began in 1999: around 6,150. Here’s another figure: More than 3,000 have died in car accidents, along with 18 drivers.

“The first motor vehicle mortality was in 1981,” says Alexander, standing over binders of color charts. He’s a rangy lean fellow, erudite on all things moose, easily able to go as deep into the weeds as you like on moose.

These days increasingly its Dermacentor albipictus, the winter tick, he is watching. Thanks to a complex permit system that divides the state into management zones, he says, the state has done a good job keeping moose populations in balance with their food and habitat, while providing hunters the chance of a lifetime with lottery permits since 1993. But human management is being undone by other factors.

“When European colonists came and changed the landscape we ended up making conditions more favorable for deer to extend their range northward,” he explains. Deer are nimble and have learned how to groom themselves to pick off winter ticks. But moose are not, and with both now cohabiting the same ranges, the ticks have become a scourge for moose.

“Moose didn’t have winter ticks in their environment, they didn’t have eons of evolution in their environment to adapt to it,” he explains.

The winter tick is appalling. After larvae develop on the forest floor, thousands of the tiny orange insects ascend vegetation in fall and when a moose brushes by, the entire clump will grab on in what Alexander calls a “tick bomb.” Females grow as big as an olive pit and moose can find themselves hosting 50,000 of the blood-sucking pests, which embed and feed throughout the winter and then drop off in spring. Moose, and especially calves, can literally die of anemia or pure aggravation.

This photo from state wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander shows a moose in Brownington that has rubbed the hair off its shoulders, where a large batch of the species known as winter ticks is lodged. The ticks have evolved with deer, which are able groom them off, but moose cannot and because they may be infested with thousands, they can actually die from the pests.
This photo from state wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander shows a moose in Brownington that has rubbed the hair off its shoulders, where a large batch of the species known as winter ticks is lodged. The ticks have evolved with deer, which are able groom them off, but moose cannot and because they may be infested with thousands, they can actually die from the pests.

“That’s one of the issues. They spend two and a half hours a day grooming instead of feeding and resting, where normally they would spend 30 seconds,” he says. Moose will rub themselves down to raw skin trying to dislodge the ticks, stripping away insulating hairs so they die of hypothermia.

The engorged ticks drop off in April, which is where Vermont’s warming climate comes into play. In the past, Alexander says, in the North Country snow lasted well into April, and ticks dropping off into snow likely would not survive. But in seven of the past 10 winters, the snow was gone in April, allowing the ticks to land in leaf litter and thrive.

Now consider the brainworm. Alexander says tests of deer feces, where brainworm eggs are expelled, show 80 to 90 percent contain the worm. Deer appear unaffected by brainworm, a hair-thin 3-inch parasite. But in moose the worm causes all kinds of inflammation and brain damage that leads to the nickname “circling disease,” because partially paralyzed moose tend to go in circles and eventually die. “The moose is a dead-end host,” says Alexander.

Whether all these factors spell the end for the moose in Vermont is the big question today. “They are pretty resilient,” he says, but Alexander’s charts reveal moose health has declined by many measures, from birth rates to body weights.

If the moose vanished again from Vermont’s landscape, he says it would be a dramatic step backward.

“If would be a huge loss if it came to the point where that was lost again, because you’re really re-creating what the Abenakis and the early colonist had … how they lived off the land,” he says.

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  • ray giroux

    This is disappointing. I can’t believe anyone with one shred of sense would make these kinds of statements.

    Non of the climate “predictions” made by the notorious Al Gore have come close to reality and the climate models put forth by the IPCC cannot hold water, proven time and again to be wrong in prediction.

    The IPCC has put forth information stating, “in 100 years the temperature of the earth will rise 2 – 3 degrees”. So, how can this article portend that, “Global Warming” is harming the Moose at this point, even if there were such a thing as ‘Global Warming,” the warming would not be that far advanced as to cause harm to habitat to the point suggested by this writer.

    Considering the IPCC is trying to deal with the fact that we have been in a cooling trend for the past 15 years or so (saying it is getting colder because the earth is getting warmer), shows the writer of this article is not paying attention.

    The Moose population, as stated in the article, died out from hunting pressure. White Tails moved into Moose habitat and flourished. The Moose, making a come back in the 80s brought with them ticks (which had , during the Moose decline, died back) and so came the resurgence of the tick as the Moose repopulated the range.

    There have always be Brain Worms. Due to the fact that the White Tail had dominated what was preciously Moose range, this escalated the problem of Brain Worms, laying in wait for the recovery of the Moose herd.

    What readers of this article should come away with is, “Global Warming” is not Science, but rather, ‘Global Warming” is political.

    • Kevin Clark

      “White Tails moved into Moose habitat and flourished.” This implies deer and moose cannot co-exist. Is that true?

  • David R. Black

    I believe that the glaciers of the world have been melting for thousands of years, according to science. So, why is global warming important now? Is it politics and greed as usual?

  • Paul Richards

    I thought science was based on facts.

    • David Bell

      It is.

      AGW denialism, however, is not.

  • Roger Hill

    Common knowledge that the tick population is increasing why? Ticks thrive in warmer climates. With that change in climate to our local wild life comes their demise. Why people deny the reality of this is lunacy. But go for it if you think people will believe you. Keep explaining to them its all Al Gore fault as that that tick crawls along.

  • Rick Cowan

    So why do we keep hunting them? So that they will disappear again? The harvest should be dramatically reduced to give the populations a chance to recover.

  • Where do these climate-science deniers keep hatching from? For over 30 years the mechanism for change has been well understood while the numbers for CO2 and methane rise inexorably. The warmest years on record are all recent. The glaciers are in rapid retreat year after year. Ocean currents depend on the arctic being cold. I need not repeat all the changes. The pace is even more rapid than the researchers conservatively predicted.
    Yes, Earth has warmed before. CO2 was once much higher than today. All we need to do after we wise up will be to wait several thousand years up to maybe 100 thousand years and climate change will be just another chapter in the long history of Earth. After a major extinction, such as Earth has had before, what’s another 50 million years to wait while evolutionary differentiation establishes abundant diversity in all ecological niches. Perhaps some of the commenters don’t believe in evolution either. Idiots who can remark that in their extremely limited view nothing has changed much should be quickly humbled and sidelined until they have done something to educate themselves.

  • ray giroux

    Eric – your statement:

    ” Idiots who can remark that in their extremely limited view nothing has changed much should be quickly humbled and sidelined until they have done something to educate themselves.”

    YOUR statement explains a lot, you have not “educated” yourself.

    You said, “the glaciers are in rapid retreat year after year”.

    This is untrue. You should research this and educate yourself. You will find that Al Gore put this lie out there, the glaciers are, in fact, expanding.

    But, like you said, “I won’t get into all the details”.

    I am sure, you and the other posters here, would call even the most knowledgeable expert who would present evidence contrary to your views as “Deniers” (main stream media narrative) and cling to the collective misguided narrative intended to lead us all into never ending taxation.

    It is NOT getting cooler because it is getting warmer, the Ice Caps are not melting, the Seas are not rising and the Storms are not getting more plentiful or more powerful. It is getting cooler because of a decrease in the Suns Solar Flares – they are diminishing.

    Maybe all the “idiots” trying to warn us of this scam will save us from the Oligarchs who intend to capitalize on our fears.

    Don’t panic just yet, we have 100 years before this all takes place, so they say –

    • David Bell

      “You will find that Al Gore put this lie out there, the glaciers are, in fact, expanding.”

      I don’t know which denialist blog told you this, but the glaciers are in fact in retreat.

      http://www.adn.com/article/20141108/nasa-images-show-columbia-glaciers-rapid-retreat

      http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/12/us/nasa-antarctica-ice-melt/

      You’ll note the source is NASA, not Al Gore.

      “I am sure, you and the other posters here, would call even the most knowledgeable expert who would present evidence contrary to your views as “Deniers” ”

      Well, not much chance of that since no remotely credible scientific organization on the planet denies the reality of AGW. The same is true of 97% of climatologists and the overwhelming majority of peer reviewed research.

      Now tell us again how thousands of people have conspired for decades to falsify data and somehow prevented anyone from actually breaking the law of silence.

      • Roger Hill

        I’m still wondering how those enviro’s melted the ice cap – wow that’s special power alright. How’d they do that Martha? Must be the Gubmint with theri special HAARP radar beams.

        It is sad one whole political party or close to it would be in such a state of moronic denial hell bent to pass Keystone pipeline that will bring 4000 permanent jobs to ship over the worst toxic bitumin oil to China — wow what an accomplishment. I mean Oilgharks partying on those yatchs with all those members of Congress in the Caribbean will be a sight to see.

  • Roger Hill

    The internet is full of inverse reality blogs where they spoon feed “fossil fuel approved” sound bites that their followers can not defend when shined a light on and “illuminated” and found to be crap.

    Truth sucks – http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/