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Moose study continues to gather info

November 4, 2015
By SHAUN KITTLE - Outdoors writer (skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

RAY BROOK - The quest to determine the status of moose in the Adirondacks continues.

Last year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation began a four-year study on Adirondack moose in collaboration with scientists from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cornell University, the Biodiversity Research Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society's Saranac Lake office.

At the center of the study is DEC wildlife biologist Ben Tabor, who said the research will help the agency develop a management plan for the enormous animals.

Article Photos


Moose can be difficult to track down despite their huge size.
Photo — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

"It's very hard to come up with a moose plan when we don't know how many moose we have," Tabor said. "At this point, we don't know how many we have, or if it's a growing population or a dwindling population. The renewed interest in moose is really because, across this latitude in North America, moose are disappearing."

In moose-populated states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, moose are vanishing across the landscape. Over the years, biologists in the Adirondacks have given moose population estimates that range from a few hundred to 800 individuals.

Tabor concedes that those numbers have always been loose, and that an exact number will probably never be settled upon. That's OK for wildlife managers, who would focus more on population trends and preferred habitat to make management decisions.

The plan could include a hunting season for moose, but there's a lot of work to do before that's even considered.

DEC staff began the study by fitting 12 moose with GPS collars, which allowed biologists to tracks the animals' movements. They also did aerial surveys, collected data from the public on moose sightings and took blood samples.

A year later, the research has already yielded some interesting results. Seven of the nine cows sampled last spring had calves, a good sign for the population here.

What struck Tabor most, though, was the habitats moose were showing up in.

"I think most people think the moose are going to be up there in the dark woods of the Adirondacks, but really the moose are more in places where we're cutting trees," Tabor said. "The most moose we've seen were in the Franklin and Clinton County easement lands and in Saratoga, near the Great Sacandaga Lake. Down there, there's some timber harvest going on."

Moose can be pretty elusive for such a large animal - adult males can weigh in at 1,200 pounds - but their size also means they need to eat. A lot.

Being browsers, Tabor said it makes sense they'd prefer the new, young, early successional growth found in a recently cut forest.

"If you have a 200-foot-tall tree, they can't reach the buds," Tabor said. "Up in Clinton County easement areas, where we have thousands and thousands of acres of private land being timber harvested, the moose love it. They love the 5- to 7-year-old clearcuts, and when they're in there it's a salad bar."

The moose GPS collars revealed that some of the moose living near those easement lands didn't wander more than a square kilometer away in three months. They just hung out and ate, but when they finished dining on hardwoods they often turned to nearby softwoods for shelter.

"The thermal cover is going to be softwoods, typically, and those softwoods are going to provide them coolness on a hot day and warmth on a cold day," Tabor said. "If we have five feet of snow and it's 40 below, they're going to go into the softwoods because there will be less snow and wind in there, so it will be a little bit warmer in there."

With the new perspective on moose habitat preference, the next question is how much of that habitat is available, which will in turn help Tabor determine the region's carrying capacity for moose. Carrying capacity is a succinct way of defining the moose-habitat relationship. The idea is to figure out how many moose the area can sustain, and conversely, how many moose can live in the area without degrading their habitat.

That's where a wildlife management plan could come into play.

"If we get to the point where we think we have 3,000 moose, and we can only support 3,000 moose, we should try to keep them at 3,000," Tabor said. "When I say we're going to hunt moose, people recoil, but other states like Maine and New Hampshire do it. Like deer, a hunting season on moose would help keep the animal's population in check with its environment."

Tabor said just because a region can support a certain number of moose doesn't mean people want that many there. A profusion of whitetail deer creates a hazard to motorists, and the animals are notorious for raiding gardens.

"There's no reason in my mind why we can't act as an ecological check, as an ecological component," Tabor said. "Hunting and harvesting moose, or deer, bear or fish, to keep them inside their carrying capacity is what I do. Wildlife management, that's our job."

Overall, the moose in the Adirondacks seem to be healthy. Tabor said they haven't had any dead moose reports this year, and moose necropsied in the last five years weren't infected with brain worm, which can kill them within two years. Most did have liver fluke, which suppresses their immune systems.

Two of the moose sampled this year had winter ticks, but they only had a few on their bodies.

Angela Fuller, leader of the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University, said scat detection dogs will be used this winter to locate moose scat. WCS did a pilot study for moose scat sampling in the Adirondacks in 2008 and identified 25 individuals from 140 scat samples.

Fuller said DNA can be extracted from the scat, making it a more efficient way to learn about the animals than trying to find a live one.

"By collecting scat at different locations across the landscape, we can detect these individuals at more than one site," Fuller said. "If we're doing multiple transects across the Adirondacks, then we'll get a sense of where they are detected. We can use that information to estimate how many total moose there are across the landscape and relate that to the landscape conditions in which we found the scat."

Scientists can also use scat to determine if a moose is pregnant. Fuller's team will collect scat samples in the summer, when temperatures are highest, and in the fall after the rut, to see how they respond to temperature changes.

"Right now moose in New York are at the southern extent of their range, and the temperatures we see in New York regularly exceed the thermal-neutral zone in moose," Fuller said. "Studies in Minnesota show that moose become thermally stressed when the temperature is only 63 degrees Fahrenheit. They're really sensitive to high temperatures."

To report a moose sighting, visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/6964.html and click on the "moose sighting report" link near the bottom of the page.

 
 

 

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