Scientists track Vermont’s moose to learn why they’re dwindling

Jacob DeBow
Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife technician Jacob DeBow. Photo by Madeline Bodin

(This story is by freelance writer Madeline Bodin.)

Jacob DeBow walked into the snowy forest from a logging road north of Route 105 in Essex County, the most northeastern part of the Northeast Kingdom, as he followed the radio signal from a collared moose calf. Then he retraced the animal’s teacup-sized tracks over the distance it would have covered in a day.

“We’ve done a day’s worth of tracking and we still haven’t found the bed,” he said. Some of the tracks plunged like shafts into snow that was nearly 2 feet deep. A chickadee called from a nearby spruce. It was the second day of spring.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s three-year moose study has several parts, including counting the number of calves born to collared moose in the spring and determining the cause of any of the calves’ deaths. From January until the snow becomes too sparse to continue, DeBow is one of two Fish and Wildlife technicians collecting the yellow snow left behind by 30 collared moose calves to see if poor nutrition is contributing to their deaths.

The study, which is linked to similar research in New York, New Hampshire and Maine, will help reveal how and why moose populations are plummeting along the southern edge of their range, from Sweden to Wyoming.

A moose in the Vermont woods. Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife photo

In 1965, Vermont had 25 moose. The population grew until it reached 5,000 in the early 2000s. At the time, DeBow’s boss, Vermont moose team leader Cedric Alexander, calculated that Vermont could support only about 3,000 moose, so the state was generous with hunting permits.

After the population dropped to that target in 2010, fewer permits were issued. However, the numbers keep dropping. The department’s most recent estimate is 1,750 animals, and it will issue just 70 permits in the upcoming season.

This was DeBow’s last moose of the day, and he had ditched his snowshoes. The spring snow was firm enough to support his weight, most of the time. He occasionally sank knee deep when the snow hid an air pocket under a log or around a tiny buried spruce.

A few steps later, DeBow came across a discolored depression in the snow. The calf’s bed. The snow around the spot where the moose had lain down to rest was sprinkled a rusty red. In a way, the red was moose blood, but blood that had passed through a tick first. Winter ticks are a major cause of moose deaths in New Hampshire and Vermont. The ticks are thriving thanks to shorter, warmer winters.

“This is one of the bloodiest beds I’ve seen in Vermont,” DeBow said. He had seen worse during the two years he worked on the similar study in New Hampshire. There, the average number of ticks on each moose is twice Vermont’s average, totaling thousands per moose. Moose can’t survive the irritation and blood loss from that many ticks.

DeBow picked up something in the bed that was purplish-gray and the size of a shriveled grape: an adult winter tick engorged with the moose’s blood. He found another. And another.

Jacob DeBow
Jacob DeBow zeroes in on a collared moose. Photo by Madeline Bodin

He still needed a urine sample from this calf. His New Hampshire experience taught him that moose generally urinate within a few steps of their beds. DeBow glanced around. He spied his prize on the bed’s far side.

He pulled a plastic vial out of his jacket pocket and kneeled near the yellow stain in the snow. “We used to pick up a ton,” he said. “But they only need 2 milliliters of concentrated snow urine, so now we take the time to pick through it.” The goal is to get the deepest-yellow snow.

To do this he snapped on a black plastic glove, grateful that he remembered it. He also collects moose droppings for a doctoral student at the University of Vermont. “The poop’s not that bad, because you just kind of scoop it into the plastic bag,” he said. The glove is mostly for the urine. “It has a smell that really stays with you.”

He tucked the vial and plastic bag back into his jacket pocket. “And that about sums up the glory of my job: tripping through thick spruce-fir habitat, falling in tree wells and picking up poop,” he said.

DeBow is grateful, though, for the time in the forest and for wildlife sightings like the lynx tracks he had seen two weeks before. He’s an avid hunter and would like a career working with the animals he loves as a big-game wildlife biologist. In August, the 23-year-old will begin studies for his master’s degree at the University of Vermont. On that spring day, he headed back to the road over the crunchy snow.

Alexander, the moose team leader, believes the slide in Vermont’s moose population is temporary and that reducing moose density is the key to its health. He believes that when the number of moose per square mile hits a sweet spot, the population will stabilize. The results of the three-year study will shed light on this and other questions. The humble contents of DeBow’s jacket pocket are destined to let moose biologists know if they are on the right track.

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  • Jason Brisson

    As someone who’s pulled 29 ticks off them self before in one sitting, I can’t even fathom having so many on me that the snow was rusty red with blood… The poor moose!

  • Luann Tenney Therrien

    So, the moose hunting season has absolutely nothing to do with the dwindling population….. interesting.