Tuesday February 26, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Concerns over the health of the moose herd may mean fewer opportunities for hunters to get moose permits this coming season.

The Fish and Wildlife Board gave preliminary approval Wednesday to issue 355 moose hunting permits for the coming season, which is 30 fewer than the previous year. The board must vote twice more for it to be final.

In 2011, 405 permits were issued. The moose population in Vermont is estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,000, however according to Vermont Moose Project Leader Cedric Alexander, the weights of the animals have been on the decline in recent years.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has the state divided into 26 "wildlife management units." Alexander said the units in the southern part of the state will not likely see a change in the number of moose permits issued as moose tend not to be found in high densities there. The department expects 200 animals to be harvested this season, which runs from Oct. 19 to Oct. 24.

The winter tick has been a problem for moose the past few seasons. Winter ticks are different from deer ticks but evolved alongside deer and used the animals as their primary hosts until the expansion of agriculture in Vermont allowed deer to move their habitat northward, said Alexander in an interview.

Part of the winter ticks' life cycle is, they collect in bunches and hang off low vegetation. These clusters can contain thousands of ticks, Alexander said, each the size of a grain of salt in that stage of life. Normally, on a deer, most will be lost to the animal grooming itself, but since a moose is longer in body and less spry they can only do so much to keep the ticks off.

He said the problem for moose has become more acute as the climate is leading to later snowfalls and earlier spring melts. Alexander said winter ticks now have another six to eight weeks of life which they have used to increase their populations and put stress on moose, particularly calves.

A few thousand ticks on an adult bull will annoy it, Alexander said, but for smaller moose it is more of a problem, and not just for the individual. He said during moose season, the department runs a number of biological check stations where data on the moose hunters kill is collected. Between 1998 and 2000 the average year and a half old cow weighed between 440 lbs and 460 lbs. Last year the average was 378 lbs.

He said cows that age are six months from their first calving and if they do not weigh enough when that time comes they will not ovulate so they can produce offspring. The ticks, he said, put stress on the animals, which makes it more difficult for them to gain weight.

Hot weather itself is a problem for moose. Alexander said their metabolisms become stressed at 58 degrees and with the summers getting hotter the moose are seeking shade and water over food many times. He said studies on dairy cows also suggest that large herbivores like that will not lactate when in hot weather which if that holds true with moose there could be an issue there.

Right now the state feels the moose population is not dense enough in some areas, but at some point a low density might be a way of controlling the spread of winter ticks, Alexander said. He added that some states have chosen to make deer herds thinner in prime moose country to take tick pressure off the larger animals. He said that is not being considered in Vermont but each year is different.

"We also want to take a conservative approach given recent regional and national trends of moose populations and health," said Alexander in a release. "Moose biologists from the southern tier of moose range across the country are increasingly concerned about the effects of warming temperature on moose health. Weather patterns have created more days where the thermoregulatory threshold for moose is exceeded causing them to feed less, and the warmer climate leads to higher winter tick loads."

Moose permits are awarded by lotteries, one for the regular season and the other for archery. The application fee is $10 for residents of Vermont and the winners have to pay $100. For non-residents the application is $25 with a $350 fee for winners. An auction is also held for five of the permits. The moose archery season runs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 and the permit fees are the same. They become available in May, according to the department. Up to date information can be found at www.vtfishandwildlife.com.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr