Or At Least, Not Yet. Despite Media Hysteria, Populations Remain Healthy In Many Places.
The moose, more than any other mammal aside from the musk ox, looks like something the glaciers forgot to take with them when they retreated North at the end of the last Ice Age. And in fact, this largest member of the deer family dwells most comfortably in some of the coldest, snowiest zones of North America, Europe, and Asia.
Recent, sharp declines in a number of North American moose populations have triggered a flurry of alarming media reports implying that global climate change is pushing the species toward catastrophe. For instance, an October 14, 2013 article in The New York Times opens with the words, “Across North America — in places as far-flung as Montana and British Columbia, New Hampshire and Minnesota — moose populations are in steep decline. And no one is sure why.”
The Times story documents a 25 percent per year drop in the population of moose in Minnesota, as well as serious though unquantified losses in Montana, British Columbia, and New Hampshire. (In fact, as many as 70 percent of New Hampshire’s baby moose have failed to survive in recent years.)
The article implicated global climate change, which has allowed deadly warm-weather-loving parasites such as winter ticks, liver flukes, lungworm, and brain worms to flourish in moose habitat. In addition, The Times correctly pointed out that milder winters have enabled a tree parasite, the pine bark beetle, to devastate the formerly moose-filled forests of British Columbia. A further climate-related hypothesis expressed in the article was that adult moose were suffering from summertime “heat stress.”
A media deluge of moose apocalypse stories followed the Times article. Almost all of them focused on the most sensational aspects of the story, including the fact that the majority of New Hampshire’s baby moose literally are being eaten alive by winter ticks, which have been thriving due to vanishing early spring snowpacks in the state. But what almost none of the articles mentioned was that moose continue to do quite well in a number of places, including Maine, southern Quebec, and New Brunswick.
In a January 16 telephone interview, biologist Lee Kantar, Moose Project leader for the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, told us that while his agency is concerned about the moose population crashes in adjacent New Hampshire and elsewhere, Maine’s moose numbers remain robust, with a herd of more than 70,000 animals. He added that in neighboring southern Quebec, the moose population actually continues to increase in spite of hunting pressure more intense than anywhere in the US.
“I think it may be the language barrier,” Kantar said, in trying to explain why the US media have largely failed to pick up on the good-news story of moose in Quebec.
According to Kantar, warmer winter and early spring temperatures undoubtedly have played a large role in the recent declines of moose populations. But he added that quality of habitat—something over which people have direct control—probably is just as important. Kantar said the fact that most of Maine’s forests are privately owned and commercially harvested is one reason for the continued health of the state’s moose population. He explained that the new, young trees that spring up in timbered areas provide excellent browse for moose, whereas the more mature forests often left intact on public lands offer less nutrition to browsing animals.
In addition, Kantar said, Maine’s best moose habitat lies in a zone that remains too cold to host a large whitetail deer population. Whitetails are carriers of parasitic brain worms, which seem to be a contributing cause for the decline in moose in Minnesota in elsewhere. Kantar added that Minnesota’s wolves, which are predators not found in in Maine, undoubtedly also play a role in losses of adult moose.
“Wolves are just one other factor—though I’m not making any other comparisons good, bad, or otherwise about them,” Kantar said.
One hypothesis Kantar scoffs at is that moose may suffer from heat stress during unusually hot summers. “This idea that moose stop eating—no, this doesn’t happen when it’s too warm. Moose have been around for a long time, and they know how to handle these temperatures.”
Kantar said that while Maine’s moose population remains healthy, state wildlife officials are keeping a close eye on the herd to make sure it stays in good shape. He said both the state and federal governments have invested in an ongoing study of radio-collared moose in order to pick up on the earliest possible signals that Maine’s emblematic animal may be running into some of the same problems as moose in other areas of the country.