I’ve had a moose problem.
Even after spending a lot of time hiking, sightseeing, fishing, and standing around in places where moose should have been, I had never seen one.
Once, while driving to Bartlett from western Massachusetts, I stopped every time I saw a clearing, a water body of any kind, including anything that looked swampy. There were a lot of places like that along the way. No moose, though. It didn’t seem right.
Another time, while visiting the White Mountains, I went for a short evening hike at a small pond whose name I can no longer remember. As I hiked, I came upon several people sitting along the trail at various spots. Finally, I asked one such person what the heck they were doing.
“Oh, a moose comes through here every evening. I’m hoping to get some good photos. Oh yeah, the same moose comes by every evening, same time.”
I got some more input and found my own spot and I waited. I watched for moose with a lot of intensity. I waited until it was dark. I waited until the other moose watchers gave up. No moose.
A friend once was riding a four-wheeler on a trail and, well what do you know, he almost ran into a moose. He wasn’t even trying to see one. I was trying. So that’s when I decided moose were but a figment of the imagination. Nope, they didn’t exist.
Until I finally saw one. It was probably the least satisfactory moose sighting in history. It happened in Maine, somewhere in the central part of the state. I’d been warned to keep my eyes peeled, that we were in moose country. Well, we were. I got a good look at a moose rump, enough of a look to be convinced that, yes, it was a moose, and yes, they do exist. But no antlers and just a fleeting glimpse. I was in a car load of people, people who all seemed to get a better view of the moose than I did. Somebody even said, after the moose trotted off the roadway, that there was another moose just off the road. I missed that one.
So while I concede that moose are real, not fairy tale creatures, they remain elusive, at least to me.
They’re out there
To most of New Hampshire, moose are hardly elusive. The massive moose, weighing about 1,000 pounds — 40 pounds of which is antlers that can measure nearly 70 inches across — calls just about all of New Hampshire home, but particularly the state’s northern regions.
Moose have turned up in people’s backyards. They will congregate along the sides of roads during winter months, lapping up salt from the roadway. Anywhere there is a clear cut, don’t be surprised to see a moose.
But with warmer winters lately, winter ticks are causing major issues for the state’s moose population. “We know the population is down about 40 percent, largely due to winter tick infestations caused by very warm winters,” said Eric Orff, a wildlife biologist and former Fish and Game employee in New Hampshire.
For moose hunting season, which just concluded, the state issued just 275 permits this year. Five years ago, the state issued 675 permits. Orff said the number of permits reflects how the moose population is doing. The population has dropped from 7,000 animals to about 5,000 during the same time period.
“Moose are being hit hard, and consequently hunters are having less opportunity,” Orff said.
Kristine Rines, who coordinates the state’s moose management program, acknowledged the state has seen a decline in the number of moose, but she isn’t sounding the alarm too loudly.
“We still have plenty of moose,” Rines said.
It’s not easy being a moose
It’s not only that warm winters allow for winter ticks to thrive; it’s also that warmer temperatures throughout the year affect moose. Moose are cold-weather animals. They don’t feed when it’s warmer than 79 degrees. During the spring this year, when moose were giving birth, it was 80 degrees. That’s too hot for moose at that time of year, Orff said.
“It’s possible cows might not be feeding properly,” Orff said. “That might have impacted calves this spring.” If cows aren’t feeding, calves might not be getting the nourishment they need, leading to the possibility that calves won’t survive or won’t be healthy. Orff is also concerned that if moose aren’t eating enough they’ll have fewer calves.
On average, moose live for 10 to 12 years, though some will live as long as 20 years. Calves are born in late spring at about 20 to 25 pounds, and by fall, calves will weigh between 300 and 400 pounds, according to Fish and Game.
Orff is worried that the warm winters we’ve had are more than just a few years of anomalies. He’s worried that climate change is altering winters, and subsequently moose populations, for the long term in the Northeast.
“Long-term temperatures are up 4 degrees on average,” Orff said. “We just had a record warm summer.... Those statistics stack up against the moose.”
As moose populations drop, winter tick populations will drop as well, lessening the threat. But by then, the damage may have been done, officials say.
New Hampshire is not alone. In Minnesota, officials have seen moose populations drop by nearly 90 percent in the last two decades. The ticks are the main culprit.
Ticks cause problems for moose when the number of days with snow cover in the winter decreases. Moose regularly carry thousands of ticks, but ticks typically drop off moose in the spring. If they fall into snow cover, ticks die. If they fall into bare ground, they can reproduce easily and more rapidly.
Moose try to remove winter ticks by scratching and licking, which removes hair and ultimately leads to secondary infections and other complications. A single moose can carry 10,000 to 120,000 ticks, according to Fish and Game.
“In this day and age, there are much higher deer densities than we’re used to,” Rines said. “Deer carry a lot of parasites that are inimical to moose but don’t bother deer. As deer populations rise — and warming winters would help that — you may see a corresponding decline in moose.” Moose are impacted by brain worm, a parasite carried by deer.
In Alaska and areas of Canada, moose, particularly young moose, would face predation by wolves. While some are speculating that wolves are returning to New Hampshire or will soon, they certainly haven’t returned in numbers that would impact moose.
Black bears have become effective predators of very young moose calves, 12 weeks or younger, particularly in areas with greater moose densities, Rines said.
“Black bears have taken a good healthy proportion of those, but not to an extent that would cause moose populations any serious problems,” Rines said. “Coyotes would take a calf if they stumbled across one, but unlike black bears, they don’t specifically hunt for them.”
Home throughout New Hampshire
Moose have their own comeback story in New Hampshire. Before Europeans arrived on this continent, moose outnumbered deer and stretched their range from Canada to the seacoast. According to Fish and Game, by the mid-1800s fewer than 15 moose lived in the Granite State, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to bounce back.
Moose densities are much greater in the state’s north country today, with moose thriving in the cooler climate. Because moose live there in such great numbers, the threat of ticks is greatest in those areas.
Rines said moose populations in the southeastern and southwestern regions of the state are fairly stable. Moose in those areas appear healthy. The lower moose density means biologists also see fewer winter ticks and other parasites.
“Right now the population seems to be holding its own,” Rines said.
In some of the northern regions in the state, people wanted to reduce the moose population, with concerns arising over motor vehicle-moose collisions, as well as with concerns surrounding moose over-browsing of tree saplings, a favorite moose food source. People were worried moose were preventing some areas of forest from growing back, thus impacting logging operations and paper mill production.
“Take a look and enjoy,” Rines said. “There aren’t many states in the union that have moose. They’re a northern species and they don’t do well at all in the heat. They have a fairly limited distribution across North America, and people in New Hampshire are kind of lucky to live in a state that has moose.”
Phil Brown, director of land management for New Hampshire Audubon, was exploring a beaver marsh near his house in Hancock this past spring. He was walking around, checking out great blue heron nests in a swampy area. All of a sudden, he heard a rustling at the edge of the marsh. He looked up to see a moose stand up.
“Through my binoculars ... I was able to watch it slowly walking away,” Brown said. “I was a little too close for comfort for it. It certainly could have gone the other way. They are definitely to be respected. They can be very threatening, especially males in the rut and females...when they have calves.”
Brown felt “a lot of excitement,” he said. “It’s the coolest thing to be able to see a moose walking in the woods...when you’re on the same playing field as the moose. I’m just thinking, ‘This thing is just really darn big. They’re so big and black. They just strike me as being so dark. It’s either a moose or a bear.”
Brown said he’s seen close to a dozen moose in southwestern New Hampshire, usually by chance. Brown, who said he is not a moose biologist, said it seems to him that the moose population could use a little help in southern New Hampshire.
“There’s not quite enough moose there,” Brown said. “That’s just my personal opinion.”
To find moose, it’s important to find the right habitat. Moose like open water marshes, particularly in the spring and summer. Moose will come to the roadside in the fall and winter to lick up road salt. At this time of year, regrowing clear cuts are absolutely the best place to see moose.
“They’re also really drawn to patches of young regenerating forest, hardwoods and balsam fir,” Brown said. “Basically a lot of hardwoods with many stems — the more stems the better.”
Moose need about 60 pounds a day of leaves and new woody growth, like buds, in order to stay healthy. Any place that provides that, look for moose, Rines said. People can spot moose at clear cuts that are about knee high to just under 10 feet tall.
Moose hunters can spend a lot of time outside, plotting moose, particularly in southern New Hampshire. Orff said they may spend a week or 10 days looking for moose before the hunting season starts. They’ll ask around communities, “Have you seen moose?”
“By and large, the successful hunters, particularly in southern and central parts, spend a long time hunting for moose, and then a short time hunting for moose during the actual season,” said Orff, who spend more than a decade monitoring the moose check-in station in Durham. Hunters must check-in their kill at one of seven check-in stations statewide.
The same holds true for people looking to spot a moose in southern and central New Hampshire.
“The opportunity is there to see a moose, if you want to put the time in,” Orff said.
Moose leave plenty of evidence in their wake.
“I think people who really know the woods and know the landscape where they’re living in can really hone in based on signs that they leave and they’re knowledge of the habitat...” Brown said.
“They leave all sorts of signs,” Brown said. “Their tracks are enormous in the mud.”
Brown said moose scat is distinctive: large oval-shaped pellets. “Usually a big pile of them,” he said.
Moose also “bark” trees, which means they will peel the outer bark off trees like red maples and striped maples utilizing their lower teeth and their hard upper lip. Barking will leave vertical stripes on branches and the main stems of trees.
“That’s a pretty good sign that they’re using an area for a food source in between seasons,” Brown said of barking.
Moose browsing is also distinctive. People can spot the “browse line,” which is typically considerably higher on shrubs and saplings since moose are so tall. Brown said that’s something to look for.
“It wouldn’t be a deer if it’s browsing the tops of taller shrubs and saplings,” Brown said.
Where the moose are
New Hampshire doesn’t have moose in the types of densities that places like Alaska do, but New Hampshire does have salt licks on the sides of roads where moose will congregate. People will stop to take a look.
“And they get frighteningly close to moose in those areas,” Rines said. “It’s amazing to me that nobody has been seriously hurt.”
A couple of sanctuary volunteers have reported seeing moose in the Nye Meadow Sanctuary in Stoddard near Granite Lake, visible from Route 9 between Concord and Keene. Brown said he typically hears about sightings in that area at least a couple times of year.
“It tends to be a good spot,” Brown said. “It’s an open water marsh with a lot of shallow feeding areas where they can wade out into the water and feed on some of the emergent marsh vegetation in the spring and summer.”
There is a parking area on the south side of Route 9 right near Granite Lake Road. Motorists should use caution; a moose was killed in a collision in that area earlier this fall.
“Unfortunately, it gets a lot of traffic and people go pretty fast through there,” Brown said. “A bear was actually killed the same week in the same spot.”
People also stand a fairly good chance of spotting a moose, or at least moose signs, such as tracks or scat, in the higher elevations in the Monadnock area. Brown suggested visiting the dePierrefeu-Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in Antrim. Brown said he spots moose tracks regularly on the property, though he has never seen a moose there. Workers recently cut a big patch to allow species to regenerate and to create varying habitat. Moose would probably be looking to munch on the regrowth in that area.
Rye Pond on Route 123 on the Nelson and Hancock town lines is another place people might stand a reasonable chance of spotting a moose. The pond is part of the Harris Center property.
The 1,000-acre Deering Wildlife Sanctuary contains good moose habitat as well. Brown said it has a mix of wetland habitat. Just last week, Brown said he spotted fresh moose barking on the property.
“I wouldn’t say there are overwhelming signs, but they appear to be present in the area,” Brown said.
The Chase Wildlife Sanctuary in Hopkinton is another place people could potentially spot moose, as well as wildlife in general. Brown figured that good moose habitat probably existed between Concord and Great Bay on the Seacoast.
“They don’t know boundaries,” Brown laughed. “They have wide ranges and they use a whole mix of habitats. “At any one time, it’s impossible to say where one is going to be.”
In my own personal quest to take in a reasonably good moose sighting, I will take Brown up on his suggestions. I will go to these places because other people have seen moose in those spots. I will drive carefully. I will scan the sides of roads. I will bring binoculars, and perhaps I’ll come up empty.
But maybe, just maybe, I’ll slowly approach a swamp, and a four-legged animal the size of a horse will raise it’s antler-shrouded head as water cascades off the antlers. Maybe it will look at me, just for a second, before it begins wading out of the swamp and into the woods.